#024: Codeine Syrup for the Christian Soul
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 us.
As a title, Grass Ceiling could lend itself to a number of interpretations, but a blunt one stands out: every mention of Emeralds out there references heroic pot intake, an image the band embraced on previous works like Dirt Weed Diaries on Maim and Disfigure, the label run by fellow Buckeyes and current underground luminaries Lambsbread. The perma-stoned, Xeroxed aesthetic of Maim and Disfigure suggests sloppy free thrash brain drool, but Emeralds relies on the subtler, smoother end of the high. The band’s slow-winding mysterio drones certainly suit zoned-out stoner patience, but a heap of weed imagery doesn’t do justice to the elegance of their sound.
Beginning with a gentle tangle of guitars, Grass Ceiling oozes into a sweet syrup of room tone, dilated chords, and faded, tape-worn ambience. Reminiscent of a murkier Growing or a Nine-Beet Stretch-ified Sonic Youth intro, Emeralds display extreme reverence for their sound sources, giving simple held sounds a gripping presence. The sheer beauty of the first track (all are untitled, if silences signal different tracks) ebbs into the in-the-red rawness of the second, which tops a gritty throb with medievalized chorals straight outta the catacombs of Columbus, only to be defaced by a searing blast of noisy electric heat.
The B-side opens with distant helicopter chug and the windy breath of the sacred, its cycles a somber greeting to an ink-black night inhabited by huge, heaving beasts lumbering in the bass frequencies. The breath gathers into near vocals, oddly similar to the scabbiest of black metal hissers, while the motorized pulse devolves into bat-cave sonar blips. The B is full of odd sounds that forgo the monolithic density on A for a more cluttered, frightening sound world, in which the almighty drone is no longer an ecstatic presence—an annihilation of consciousness and invitation to unity—but an indicator of things unknown, worthy of fear and paranoia.
To listen to Emeralds is to struggle against semiotics. Both Maim and Disfigure and Fag Tapes are renowned for their gutter bent, their taste for the noisiest and gnarliest. All signs seem to point elsewhere, towards an axis of filth and fury around which Emeralds does not orbit. The initial shock is disorienting, but the surprise is a pleasant one. Grass Ceiling is among the more honest-to-God beautiful (on Fag Tapes! Who’da thunk it?) releases to surface on cassette this year.
With the ascent of James Toth’s solo career, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice have gone on indefinite hiatus. Since the band was little more than a collective in the first place—expanding and contracting with line-up changes—this new arrangement doesn’t at all prevent the sonic endeavors of the remaining members of WWVV. Beyond the relatively high-profile Vanishing Voice releases that have appeared on Important and Gypsy Sphynx, a few interesting side projects have cropped up as well, the most cryptic of which is Non Horse, the long-running, long-dormant project of G. Lucas Crane, one of the founding members of the Vanishing Voice. While the more psychotropic moments of the Vanishing Voice may have toyed with the esoteric, Non Horse is willfully and delightfully impenetrable, a multi-layered stew of manipulated tape loops, electronic tones, mangled recordings, and other sonic debris. While Drone Moral is far more accessible than the earlier Rigor Lore, it veers far from folk, even the freakiest niches that WWVV inhabit.
What keeps Drone Moral from lapsing into the opacity that burdened Rigor Lore is an emphasis on a few key sounds—a man saying “Pardon Me,” old dusty slide-steel scrapes, and seabird screeches. These basic layers are twisted and multiply recontextualized, paired with electro-cave-dweller reverberations and dubbed-out aquatics. The effect is narcotizing and vaguely worshipful, a chopped and screwed version of a chopped and screwed version of a spooky spoken-word-and-organ cassette; codeine syrup for the Christian soul. The sludgy whole is so jaw-slackening I listened to the tape a couple times over before realizing that the A and B side were identical.
Perhaps the decline of WWVV is not such a bad thing, as the release schedule for Non Horse (not to mention Time Life, a duo of Crane and Heidi Diehl) has been accelerating in the old band’s wake. With the sheer variety of sounds gathered for each of his first two cassettes, the future promises to be beyond eclectic.
Chants and Prayers Like Holy Water
[Plane Crash In Boxes]
From an outsider’s perspective, the locus of new sound seems to shift almost yearly in Europe. This idea is likely an illusion produced by imperfect information and compounded by distance effects and a hint of travel-hungry romanticism on my part, but there’s bound to be a kernel of truth somewhere in the impression. Otherwise, why would some countries bubble into fiber-optic consciousness so suddenly? Three years ago, Finland was the dark land of old forests and realized myth, of revelry drunken, pagan, and unbound. Two years ago, Belgium offered neon dada-sound and endless silk-screened, line-drawn creativity. This past year, Denmark has arisen, and while the image is still hazy, groups like Family Underground, BM, Sarah’s Charity, and now Soyc and Shiggajon point to a tight-knit, positive community unafflicted by the pissy ennui of North American noise.
Shiggajon is based in Arhus (couldn’t find the shortcut for the krouzek), the second-largest city in Jutland. Their piece, titled “Forklarelsen Pa Bjarget,” refers to the transubstantiation of Christ on the mountain. The Christian theme doesn’t dominate the piece explicitly, but it does figure in now and then, particularly in an interesting stretch that seems to drag a gospel choir in over the slur of raga-tinged string drones at the base of Shiggajon’s sound. Shiggajon, however, are not to be counted among the drone and noise crew, despite their affection for both. The band is too restless, venturing at a brisk but unhurried pace into percussive ritual, chime-laden folk reverie, and smoky, serpentine Eastern vamps. Their sound seems informed by an idealistic bucolia, undeterred by issues of cultural appropriation and the over-analysis such issues engender, focused instead on a private spiritual aurality informed by multiple cultures, texts, and musical modes.
Soyc is a natural ally for a split. They too set out for Shambhala, but with a more single-minded bent, driven by loose-but-determined hand-drum beats and a constant looping sitar buzz. Though lacking the exciteability of Shiggajon, Soyc still veers from the true path, with dual saxophone squalls and woodwind drifts providing interesting diversions from the pilgrimage. My only complaint is that the piece ends abruptly, casting a pall over a long side in need of a satisfying conclusion that demonstrates the band’s ability to control their own direction. The structure they build is compelling and open-ended, one that would have allowed for multiple directions for a finale, but instead opted for none at all.
Even so, the sixty minutes of largely satisfying sound and the stunning visuals of the tape have certainly brought Plane Crash in Boxes to my attention and further enhanced Denmark on my mental map. Of course, this prophecy is self-fulfilling. Once one has the wherewithal to scour the underground of a country, the impossible fertility of the human imagination never fails to impress…
By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-05-01