Amps for Christ
The People at Large

5 Rue Christine

he analogy of the radio station you can barely tune is woefully overused in describing bands with a "lo-fi" sound, but what the hell, it works and I can't think of a better one. When you read it, you immediately know what we're talking about in terms of fidelity: tapes hissing, amps humming, transistors whining, fingers scratching up and down the fret board. In short, a veritable menagerie of electrical calls and responses. Somehow these interferences always seem to add a paradoxically organic layer to whatever musics they are so applied.

Quick history: Amps for Christ is basically this guy Henry Barnes and a shifting cast of collaborators. Barnes was in Man Is the Bastard, who put out a couple of records in the mid-90s which kind of invented a style you could call "powerviolence," or maybe "noisecore." Or you could make up your own little hybrid name. He's put out like a half-dozen records or so under the Amps name, all based on pretty much the same gimmick: he plays gentle little ditties on a variety of acoustic instruments, then rudely stuffs them through a variety of signal processors, where they refract into an aural rainbow of fuzz and feedback. The results are delightful or grating, depending on your appetite/tolerance for this kind of sonic sandpaper; I'll take the former.

Now then: with what station shall we round out our comfortably familiar radio analogy? It's definitely left-of-the-dial, but where early lo-fi channeled the sunny pop melodies of college radio, Amps for Christ are instead tuned to some NPR-type station with an eclectic playlist that globetrots along a scenic trail of traditional sounds from various far-flung locales, pausing now and then for the occasional poetry reading.

Barnes's selection of instruments is quite broad, and his infatuation with the sitar makes it seem as though he acquired one quite recently; the selection of cultures being aped on the pseudo-ethnic tunes leans heavily towards Indian. A few too many for my taste, but they're short, so whatever. There are far more fragments than songs on People, which suits Barnes's style just fine. Most of the pieces are under three minutes, with several under two, and that's just long enough. Sprinkled throughout the album is a handful of longer, actual songs, most of which sound like sea chanties with a Celtic vibe. After each one, Barnes wanders off again to some remote corner of Asia.

Once in while he stops to read a short poem over some formless electronic noise, and the effect is rather unfortunate. Even when the words are matched with a cleverly onomatopoeic sound effect, as on "Bug," in which a short verse about flying insects is recited over what sounds like a piece of cardboard being stuck in an electric fan, these tracks are little more than annoying interruptions, and detract from the albumís generally pleasing tone.

While most of the compositions are either originals or too obscure to recognise, the album also includes two separate versions of "Auld Lang Syne," which neatly sum up the range of Barnes's style. The first is subtitled "Tube," and basically sounds like an electric guitar playing the familiar melody as though it were a rock anthem (though it's probably an acoustic guitar played through, let's say a tube preamp). The second, subtitled "Transistor", sounds like bagpipes running through an old standby (though it's probably something much less exotic played through, I dunno, something with transistors?). Traditional melodies made to sound modern, modern instruments made to sound traditional; voila: Amps for Christ.

The risk, of course, is that all these individual stylistic parts will leave the whole sounding like someone's world-music mix tape. But despite the willful eclecticism, Barnes's unique vision gives the music a singular voice and the album a satisfying coherence that underlies the all the genre-hopping on the surface. Tune in, I say.

Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph

Reviewed on: 2005-01-07

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Posted 01/07/2005 - 09:17:46 AM by MFgill:
 An excellent, overlooked album.
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