On Second Thought
John Watermann – These Are Workers






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

By the time John Watermann began releasing cassette tapes of his music, he was almost three decades into his recording non-career. In the meantime, he'd witnessed the horrors of the Third Reich as a young child in his native Germany and the aftermath at Auschwitz as a photojournalist. He worked as a photo engraver and saved up enough money over the years to go on a scuba trip to the Red Sea. Unfortunately this was in 1967, literally on the day of the outbreak of the Six-Day War. He married, sired children, married again, and somewhere in there, on a whim, headed for Australia, where he spent the remainder of his days making films, painting, writing, making music, and gaming the system for unemployment benefits. At this point, after years of hocking old equipment to purchase new and quitting one odd job after another, he decided to start putting out his own music on cassettes in miniscule print runs. This opened the floodgates to some 40-odd records in a dozen years: some old and some new, some artistically successful, some not so much, but all somehow unlike anything else around. He released music until his death in 2002. There was a burgeoning scene of roughly like-minded electronic and progressive musicians in and around his adopted home of Brisbane that he consciously, even studiously, avoided. Once in a while, a young turk or two might get a wild idea to go look him up after happening upon a record in a cut-out bin somewhere, only to find him particularly elusive. They wondered who he was, what he’d been up to this whole time. That first question gets muddled and garbled in the fog of time, but the answer to the second seems clear: he was living.

He was well into his fifties by this point, and these recordings are all of basically unknown vintage; for all anyone knows, he could have had some of these on a shelf since the late ‘60s. It doesn’t really matter though, as none of them belong to any particular time or place. Watermann was what a certain art-historical temperament might call an “outsider:” an unstudied non-careerist with naught save a fruitful hobby or the simple need to express. In certain respects, he fit the standard mold: while he may not have been outright insane like outsider-art demigods Lesage or Darger, he was reclusive and recursive in his practice, ignoring contemporary movements and even audiences, making work that seemed to exist in its own insulated world. He also shared their vague ambivalence to the underbelly of modern existence; it covers all of his art, in any medium, like wallpaper. This isn’t to call him “political” in any real sense. He may, here and there, point generally to some real person, place, or event, but there’s no grandstanding or pedantry. Just airless rooms, heavy weight, and the soundtrack to the Great Plastic Malaise, scored for cheap electronics and tape loops.

The “Plastic” bit is pretty much irrelevant to These Are Workers; that’s a different record (Illusions of Infinite Bliss, actually, but maybe some other time). The Malaise—that quiver in the belly, that ache behind the eyes, when everything just seems wrong—is Watermann’s mien. These Are Workers was originally released (if that's the word) in a cassette run of 100 on Watermann's own label (if that's the word) in 1991 and reissued on CD by Alias Frequencies in 2000, only to fall into the dustbin of obscurity yet again. And while he may have records in his catalog that are more abrasive, more claustrophobic, more open, louder, or softer; none are more evocative, more eye-opening, or more sinisterly beautiful than TAW. It's a tape-loop experiment full of songs, haunting ditties for perpetual wartime, a scholarly activity taken from the academy as if by force; its sources are unknowable, its melodies from the clear blue, plucked straight from the ether.

It starts with “Goodbye” and a zombie beat; an infinite, dead-foot shuffle and on-beat croaks invaded by slow and steady waves of soft pink synths and jammed radios. Watermann, here as elsewhere, marks his progress through degradation, by how long it takes his urge to destroy to take over. “Going into Space” steals a radio sample of a DJ announcing a Soviet-era recording of Rimsky-Korsakov, some sort of education reel, and what sounds like 30-foot long crickets in a thick bog, throwing them in one after the other like verses in a sonnet. This being a loop affair, TAW is made all but entirely of inexorably steady rhythms, as hypnotic as they are aggravating, like the heartbeat of delirium. When he uses actual beats, as on “Latex Room Laughter,” they're cracked but steady, with no intention of righting themselves; the cold gun-metal of techno, ground into its constituent parts and scattered.

But all that is lead-in. The title track, which swallows side two whole, is where it all comes to a boil. You focus on the Voice, a single sample of a man intoning the title in the deadest of dead-pan, pitch-shifted, warped, and abused at every turn. “These are workers. These are wooooorszzz.” All of the effect, however, is behind him: soft, Vangelis synths; the constant, rippling haze and a lone kettle drum in the far distance; a crumpling of paper and a blast of buckshot. Calling it crypto-Marxist is too facile, and this side eats thought like a black hole, judgments sucked in and spat back out. But those melodies do waft, and the whole ungainly thing mesmerizes and astounds. Watermann may have been an outsider, but his bubblegum (as in sticky underfoot) instincts are pure, mangled, and radioactive as they may be. John Watermann, at the end of the day, was really not as mysterious as he seemed: he was just a man. And while These Are Workers is eerie, discomfiting, dark, and even somewhat remote, it's also lucid, open, sumptuous, and essential, as the only successfully recorded instance of thermonuclear pop.


By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2006-06-06
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