Wolf Eyes — Strange Days II (Lower Floor Music, 2017)
Having loved Wolf Eyes’ March 2017 release Undertow, you’d think the marginal crew would have been quick to get Strange Days II up in running immediately following its August release. This post, however, is clearly a testament to the contrary. Perhaps the delay has afforded the listener some much needed critical distance — especially since we are talking about those demented doctors of density from Detroit, Wolf Eyes. Days picks up the mantle where Undertow left off. Whilst the band has self-stylized themselves as a “trip metal outfit,” the recent direction they have pursued far exceeds anything offered by the appellation metal. Of course, the soundscapes that the group craft are metallic, but Bathory it ain’t. Wolf Eyes have definitely crossed the Rubicon: they’ve effectively moved into new territory, begun to incorporate new motifs in their playing, but still manage to sound like Wolf Eyes. Surely this is the mark that one would hope all bands and players strive for, yet the base/superstructure logic of late capitalism sees art and artists ultimately defer to the spectacular and omnipresent dominance of the commodity. Debord-cum-Marxian bullshit aside — and not to imply that Wolf Eyes operate beyond the aforementioned logic—the two tracks on this release are hypnotic and explorative, which makes Strange Days II great for successive listens. Nate Young and John Olson come across like modern day incense-burning Martin Rev and Alan Vega on an Einstürzende Neubauten kick. Flutes, guitars, and oscillators all contribute to the dark and somnolent basement musings of the Detroit. Despite the brevity, Strange Days II is another strong release from Wolf Eyes.
Chicago/London Underground — A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors (2017, Cuneiform)
In the Chicago/London Underground’s A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, the group’s hazy, playfully meandering performance recalls the convivial, unfettered spirit of 1960s free jazz. Whilst ‘breezy’ may not be the first word one has in mind when listening to free musics, the group swagger through the titular track and justify the performance’s title — they sound entirely capable of seamlessly walking through mirrors, perhaps unsurprising when one sees the strength of the players (Chad Taylor, drums; John Edwards, double bass; Rob Mazurek, cornet; Alexander Hawkins, piano). One hears definite reverberations of early Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry work, Archie Shepp’s late 1960’s BYG Actuel records, and Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador. The ensemble’s use of electronic treatments and/or guitar stompboxes — a technique that is thankfully under utilized in most improvisational circles — is tastefully and effectively employed here by Mazurek. Such effected passages provide a subtle nod to trip hop and at times recall British trumpet/drum duo Spaceheads. ‘Something Must Happen’ exposes the listener to the group’s sonic and textural range: at moments it’s positively Burrell-esque (perhaps not as tempestuous as Echo, but one can confidently utter the LP in the same sentence); the end of the track however showcases both electronic psychedelia and mbira(!). The recording’s fidelity creates no artifice: the album is well recorded, but not glossy. Audience reactions are not redacted. Mixed with the ensemble’s cohesion the listener could easily transport themselves into the low-ceilinged, cramped quarters of Cate Oto on a full night. Arguably one of the most exciting contemporary Free Jazz recordings we’ve experienced in awhile at Marginal HQ, A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, is indeed a night well spent.
Charlie Ulyatt — Shifting (2017, self-released)
English guitarist Charlie Ulyatt’s Dead Birds was largely characterized by a languid, yet focused series of solo guitar anti-études. In place of demonstrating earth-shattering virtuosity, the Nottingham-based guitarist more interestingly showcased a meditative awareness which honed in on the precise meeting point of timbre and temporality. In listening to Dead Birds, one quickly comes to recognize Ulyatt’s tone—lightly treated with reverberation and tremolo—as his own distinct voice. One also quickly picks up on the tranquil patience the artist possesses, made evident by the simple and soporific nature of the pieces. Impressively, the Ulyatt’s forthcoming cassette, appropriately titled, Shifting, opts to change direction. In place of the breezy, repetitive style found on Birds, the listener encounters tensile, sometimes percussive, almost always inquisitive pieces, whilst not jarring per se, do ask something more of the listener than Ulyatt’s preceding album. “A Taste of Ore” invokes the hypno-drones of “Venus In Furs” with Ulyatt effectively standing in for both Lou Reed’s “ostrich guitar” and John Cale’s imperious and jagged viola, all the while, leaving the Warhol Factory pretense at the door. Fleeting moments of slide guitar on “Ah Moses” harken back (even if unwittingly) to the blues of the Mississippi Delta, creating a fascinating lineage from Robert Johnson’s crossroads covenant with Old Scratch to the post-industrial experimentalism of the East Midlands. Elsewhere, tracks such as “Dry Lake Piss Flow” and “Daisy Chain Burns” recall the grit of Skullflower, but manage to replace the dark and dirgy overtones with something that, despite its abstract qualities, is surprisingly joyful. In all, Shifting is a fascinating series of tunes, that whilst lacking the accessibility of Dead Birds, remains an artistic testament to the importance and inevitability of change.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Luciferian Towers (2017, Constellation)
Canadian symphonic rockers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor return with their first record in x years with Luciferian Towers. Having not listened to Godspeed! much since Yanqui U.X.O, this listener was taken aback by the collective’s drastic departure from the brooding and sparse compositional work littered with field-recordings, monologues, etc. Instead, the group’s modus operandi has evolved into one which is jubilant, airy, and fairly wide-open. The musicianship remains top-notch, as do the politics. Sonically, however, the results leave much to be desired. This release largely underscores that Godspeed You! Black Emperor operate almost entirely within the idiom of rock’n’roll —a fact, that their musicianship has long done well to obscure. The opening piece, “Undoing a Luciferian Tower” is a sprawling, cinematic piece, that while decisively executed, is at times almost humorous in its unabashed bombast. Again, noting that the group operate largely within the idiom of rock’n’roll, their sonic vocabulary often ends up coming off like an indie-version of Trans Siberian Orchestra. The instrumentation is never lost or bizarre (in a pejorative sense), but the aesthetic framings that the group operate within, coupled with the aforementioned bombast, comes across as fairly mawkish. The third track, “Fam/Famine” is perhaps the best of the LP. Structurally, less predictable than the multi-movement crescendo/apex/release employed throughout the rest of the LP, the album’s shortest tune instead opts to explore sensibilities that closely resemble the collaborative proto-ambient work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp à la No Pussyfooting. Not a bad direction and one that the group pull-off masterfully. While praise for this release has been virtually unanimous, here at Marginal HQ, we’re a bit more skeptical. Despite the group’s well documented political stance(s), the adherence to convention and accessibility, again casts doubt on western music(s)’ ability to catalyze or embody substantive social change.
Mette Rasmussen/Tashi Dorji/Tyler Damon — To The Animal Kingdom (2017, Trost)
Hot off the press from Austrian label, Trost Records, To The Animal Kingdom is a blistering release from a fantastic trio of Mette Rassmussen, Tashi Dorji, and Tyler Damon. Recorded live in Toronto during the trio’s brief Canadian tour in the summer of 2016, the opening bars of the title track prod, poke, and playfully tease the listener before exploding into a joyful cacophony that straddles a meandering and rapturous line between disgruntled no wave and John Coltrane’s final works with Rashied Ali. “To Life” features Rasmussen’s serrated, almost Dolphy-esque playing, which invokes hardboiled film noir chase scenes and/or the turtlenecked basement hipsters of yesteryear, spitting, salivating, and flippantly flicking their cigarettes with disdain, all the while losing their shit behind the impenetrable façade of cool. Concurrently, Damon and Dorji’s equally fervid sonic quills shred the air ragged, making for a melange of something that’s not quite jazz, not quite punk, and not quite noise rock, yet would fit square in the middle of a Venn diagram of the three. The closer, “To The Heavens and Earths” is a slowly crescendoing, jerky, free jazz number. At times reminiscent of a less bombastic Last Exit, the piece builds to it’s lurching apex, only for the bottom to drop out. Just like a bird whose sprightly song has ceased, the ensemble briefly take stock of all that surrounds, before fluttering off into the vastness of the world.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe — Levitation Praxis Pt. 4 (2017, DDS)
After a September sabbatical, which included lots of work, a vacation, and more work, Marginal gears are creaking back into rotation at HQ. Just in time too, because we’re sure excited for this release from veritable sonic-journeyman and bonafide aesthete, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. For their exhibition Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound, New York’s Museum of Art and Design commissioned Lowe (and Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance) to produce a series of sound and video recordings at Bertoia’s Pennsylvania sonambient barn. These recordings released on the DDS label, are the result of one such session. As is to be expected, the ambience of the barn coupled with the sculptures’ already ethereal sonic characteristics, results in a set of magisterial, widely resonant pieces, featuring manipulations of Bertoia’s sound sculptures. Where Lowe excels, is in his ability to harness the happenstance of improvised performance. Levitation Praxis allows the artist to demonstrate an artistic awareness and tact that inform the aesthetico-methodological choices: when to push on and further develop an idea, when to refrain, et al. Interwoven layers of choral melodies and urban sounds produce a rich sensory experience for the listener and explode the temporal and contextual framings around the works. Is it medieval religious chanting? Is it musique concréte? It’s dually both and neither all at once. While Bertoia’s original recordings are imbued with a certain otherworldliness, Lowe’s tasteful use of vocal and tape treatments add a new dimension to sonambient execution and composition.
A final salient point: in the relative racial homogeneity of many avant-garde circles (a point itself, that remains woefully under analyzed), as a person of color, this writer/listener can truly appreciate that Lowe’s (marginal) artistic practice(s). Indeed, his very inclusion in this project, helps to illuminate that artists of color, especially those whose artistic practices transpire on the margins, must often simultaneously navigate a host of margins, many of which are far more consequential than one’s chosen aesthetic path. Furthermore, if marginal artistic practices and music(s) are ever to serve as incubators and/or catalysts for radical social change, the spaces and imaginaries that reinforce the avant garde must first begin to chip away at homogenous understandings about who occupies these spaces and in a very literal, normative sense, what the avant-garde looks like. At the risk of succumbing to blind optimism, the future is likely to be diverse (and factually speaking: less white); but the real question is, can the avant garde remain the vanguard?
Gilman Mom — Manifest Destiny (2017, Macaque)
On the bandcamp page for the latest release by Berkeley, California artist Gilman Mom, the listener encounters a disclaimer of sorts indicating that Manifest Destiny should “feel like a troubled night walk of self-reflection that blossoms into realization.” Indeed, at times, the listener is immersed in the unpredictability of a late night saunter through some unnamed urban hell. The combination of field recordings, sound clips, and ethereal electronic production craft an album that straddles the line between erratic introspection and dreamlike aplomb. Moments of minimalism emerge and mirror late night stillness and the mildly obsessive pensiveness that one is awash in when surrendering oneself to critical self-evaluation. Trip hop vibes surface and recede at varying points throughout. The sonic/compositional lightness is sometimes reminiscent of the early works of Ghislain Poirier—if he were playing fast and loose with his composing—or the KLM on an off day. At times, the deeply personal, confession-like monologues are somewhat jarring. When contextualized alongside GM’s 2016 release I Forgot to Tell You, however, everything comes into clearer stylistic focus. The artist’s propensity for sound clips, monologues, etc., while unapologetically subjective, lend a degree of rawness that is often lost or suppressed in the digital realms of electronic music(s). While it remains unknown if the clips employed are in fact the artist themself, the selection of these fragments effectively represent subjectivity and self-examination, even unintentionally. At Marginal HQ we’re musing over what an even more minimal Gilman Mom record looks like, but who knows what’s in the cards. Fans of Australia artist Pogo and the aforementioned KLM should find this palatable, whilst those who gravitate more towards field recordings and high degrees of aural abstraction will find the musicality and human voice to be a nuisance.