#010: Scrambling Brainpans
e have not entered the tape renaissance. Tapes have never gone away. Long abandoned by the recording industry, its status as preferred portable usurped by CDs and MP3s, the cassette still marches forward, championed by the tiniest of the tiny start-up labels and, increasingly, those looking for an alternative to digitalization and the tyranny of flat formats. The recording technology is dirt cheap, reproduction is a breeze, and packaging is a blast. Cassettes elicit a fervor of fandom rivaled only by top-shelf vinyl.
Herein, cassettes shall have their day. Unfortunately, only a few will. Try as I might, I can’t cover nearly as many as I’d like. So if you run a label or know someone who does, and you’d like to submit tapes for review, please e-mail me.
The second release from Aaron Dilloway’s Spine Scavenger alias seems to take most of its sounds from a contact microphone rammed into his mouth. A DEFCON 1 claxon, possibly born of vocal jiggerypokery, welcomes in the first high-energy side. Pained and muffled screams dip into electric mayhem over a Sturm und Drang echoing barrage. Mini-match strikes of digi-noise, cut-outs, and fully fledged messed-up vocals give the song a bubbling chaotic appeal. Both sides are constantly on the move, the sound shifting with every gasp, breath, and groan. These grimy exhalations take on different aural shapes, permutations on a Merzanalogue cloud of flak. From wailing didgeridoos made from glued together ribs to the sound of grating bent crutches, this is an insane and vigorous tour of the inside of Dilloway’s winter retreat.
Ether Works Volume 2
[Self Released, 2006]
The thing about Death Chants is that even though I know what I’m getting when I reach for the remote, I’m always surprised. “Sun Harp” (the A side) may well be based on dusty sunlight drones and lone acoustic plucks of blunt guitar, but it’s still beautifully organic, alive, and worthy of full attention. The side’s wavering accordion hum warms the loose strummed guitar melody picking out a separate imaginary melody between the insistent haywire bubbling.
The second side comes straight from the soundtrack to Hillcoat/Cave’s recent The Proposition, “Big Sky, Black Sky” has all the desert menace anyone could ever require. The waves of sand and heat swell from the violin, as it slides back and forth. But these notes aren’t left to rise on the breeze; they’re gently fucked with, like someone dragging their fingertip along a reel to reel. The song’s desolate displaced European/Middle Eastern vibe is a world away from the more rural American sound of their Natural History release.
Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice
[SF Tapes, 2006]
Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice do not want to be understood. Ever the artful dodgers, they’re liable to obfuscate, rewrite, and reinvent themselves on any release, be it a self-released tape or a nationally distributed release like Gypsy Freedom. I, for one, have given up on trying to track their development; the evidence is simply not transparent.
They will never refine their style or release their definitive statement. WWVV behave as if they are both derisive and afraid of the Statement. On the one hand, such a deliberate action runs contrary to their loose, inspiration-hits-when-you-least-suspect compositional method. And on the other, the Statement would dissipate WWVV’s cloudy legend, thin the haze of underground mystique that surrounds them even as Wooden Wand plays nearly every day of SXSW.
The band refuses the linear trajectory of progress, condemning it as artificial, while they artificially maintain their outsider status. A wonderful position to occupy, that of the trickster, the mask-switcher, frustrating only to scribes and those in search of an authenticity that’s never existed as more than fantasy.
With that in mind, Abundant Life—a live recording from Boston that’s been kicking around on cassette for nearly a year now—represents WWVV as clearly as any release. Notably absent are the Christian ruminations that have taken center-stage elsewhere. Instead, through a series of isomorphic rants (“Icing and sugar, Wooden Wand is for the Children, Not for the _____”), the band plays up its marginal status, situating itself against those clearly in opposition—police, the rich—and against those most would consider their allies—record collectors, “noise narcissists.”
I presume the children in question are those symbols of wide-eyed, unfettered freedom that adults pretend children to be. Wooden Wand does love his dense images. Here again he’s begging for interpretation, creating yet another cultural avatar for the avid audience to seize on: that of the civilization denier, the fugitive from a modernity grown unbearable. Now outlaws rather than evangelicals, WWVV find themselves on the boundary between living the imaginary and imagining it.
Heavy on the violin drones and mid-level textures, the set flows through twenty minutes, free but never reaching for solo wanks or cheap crescendo/decrescendo dynamics. The band has considerable patience with each other, a patience that makes twenty minutes feel like the right length for a song.
Abundant Life can be rightfully described as one song. Though not a rigid verse-chorus-verse number, it still gathers around Wooden Wand’s charismatic presence and remains self-contained. So be content to play the image game with WWVV as long as they see fit. Yes, they try on a lot of hats, but all of them are stylish.
[Bonescraper Recordings, 2006]
Noise rock denotes little more than scuffed-up indie. Not much noise rock aims for the jugular the way the aggressive noise does. But so much for misnomers—Grey Skull plays noise rock. And they play it right, which is to say the way I want. The noise occupies the foreground, most of the background, and the entirety of your sinus cavity. It’s crushing, brutal, confusing, and violent.
Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Harder noise often gets lost in its own excess. The focus tends to shift from sonics in and of themselves to the physical task of scrambling the brainpan. Structure is treated as another musical convention to flout, another avenue by which to demonstrate the totality of chaos. Grey Skull skips that route, organizes its sound a bit more, varies its palette. Not content with layers of incessant sinusoidal shriek, Grey Skull takes shape.
Greatly aided by its strangled, undead drumming, which doesn’t quite keep time so much as remind the listener that time still exists, the A-side-consuming “Open Sore” lurches over a surprisingly diverse terrain. Though the noise stalwarts all come to play—the feedback howls, vomit drones, and top-of-the-dial knob twisting—their arrangement suggests more than happenstance.
I suspect the folks at Grey Skull would bristle at being deemed noise rockers. To be fair, the rock elements on Hot Blood don’t surface quickly. Or often. But still, the tag fits, if only to emphasize a similarity that would otherwise be lost in the riot.
[Lal Lal Lal, 2006]
The word Finnish has come to reflexively invoke the word “folk” and a host of images bred by contemporary American hippie hordes. The two terms need to be dissociated. Finland does modernity just like America (check your cell phone brand), and as much of its music comes from drunk, disaffected urbanites as from forest nymphs. Hailing from historic Turku, Maniacs Dream definitely count among the latter, as witnessed by their stumblebum antics on both this cassette reissue from 2003 and last year’s LP on the great HP-Cycle.
Along with the Skaters and Avarus cassettes, this tape is the cream of a bumper crop of Lal Lal Lal reissues. With sloppy dual guitars, buzzy, sluggish bass, and slapdash drum work, Maniacs Dream stagger along the straight line between punk rock and total unintelligibility, veering (ir)regularly into each. The focus of the three songs on the tape, more than melodies or rhythms or the usual baggage, is this struggle against entropy. The pieces lapse in and out of phase, locking long enough for fierce riffs before losing steam in a muddle of disjointed finger-picking.
But this instability does not equate to incompetence. Rather, Maniacs Dream makes an art of managing their chaos, controlling their dissolution so that the technical failings become highlights. Their propulsive guitar blasts of “Power of the Way” (I think—Maniacs Dream names their pieces as loosely as they perform them. There seem to be way more tracks than titles in the liner.) could only hit so hard surrounded by scattered cymbals blasts and random tambourine. Amidst the disorganized, the organized sound becomes all the more potent, as if it is driving the surrounding dissolution.
Similarities definitely exist between Maniacs Dream and the iconic free-folk of Finland. With Avarus, they share the sprawling sensibility, sense of humor, penchant for drugged Krautrock grooves, and a member or two. Flutes and hand drums—ever the sylvan signifier—surface every now and then, too. But this should not suffice to peg Maniacs Dream as a bizarre variant of the Finnish folk business. The dumb-drone synths and pelvic-thrust axe-work speak of a different heritage. One of Jagermeister, cigarette burns, and pools of vomit filling cobblestone cracks.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-04-14