Sweet And Vicious Like Frankenstein
aving made a name for themselves by fashionably pimping sound-scapes playful (Fennesz’ Endless Summer), beautiful (Jim O’Rourke’s I’m Happy, I’m Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4), and ugly (Kevin Drumm’s terrifying Sheer Hellish Miasma) Mego’s avant-instrumental artists delving headlong into electronic micro-dissections has always seemed to me a compulsory act; a rite of passage to show the artist hasn’t only mastered the intricacies of their instrument, but also the compositional dynamics that allows them to conjure music out of even the most base musical element–the shuddering electronic synapses of recorded music put on tape, and torn apart at the seams.
From its first tentative cracklings to the terrible, crushing wave of feedback that heralds its end, Rob Mazurek’s Sweet and Vicious Like Frankenstein is a record that uses Mary Shelley’s like-titled novel as a means of thematic inspiration. The Chicago-based Mazurek, best known for his session work as a trumpet player for a slew of Drag City and Thrill Jockey artists (Azita, Jim O’Rourke, Chicago Underground Trio) here focuses on the micro-tonal sound manipulations that typifies his label’s output. In several instances–especially in the cases of those illuminated earlier in the review as the finest Mego has to offer–the experimentations have yielded surprising amounts of listenable material. Manzurek, however, seeming both daunted by the equipment he used to record Frankenstein and under the influence of his colleagues O’Rourke and Drumm, has recorded an album torn between his melodic sensibilities and the distorted tunelessness one expects from Mego’s more anonymous releases. Despite the album’s unfortunate capture of a brilliant horn player desperately frittering away to salvage shards of melody from a dissonant morass, Manzurek does approach the project with a certain amount of avant panache. He wisely eschews Mego cliches (Stuttering loops of sound; blaring sheets of feedback) in lieu of a more interesting, psuedo-narrative approach.
Mazurek’s breadth of instrumentation–including found sound, keyboards, and the electronic disintegrations of computer music–color Frankenstein’s first song, the 37-minute long "Body Parts (Spectral White)," with the subtle coalescing of sound coming together in the night. As in Shelley’s novel, in which Dr. Frankenstein attempted to animate the lifeless patchwork of his rag-doll with electricity, Mazurek seems hell-bent on capturing the gradual animation of music–and the way that animation can suddenly yield to silence, or be overcome by nightmarish chunks of distortion. Though the piece features impressive dynamic range, it all too often collapses into seemingly arbitrary static hisses. During the scattered passages within the piece in which Mazurek attains melodic and thematic unity, his vision becomes well-represented, and is sort of admirable. Overall, "Body Parts" isn’t a terrible prelude (To the final track, which is the more substantial of the two pieces), but it does betray its intentions with copious–at times, unbearable--amounts of electronic noodling.
The second piece, "Electric Eels (Half Light)," takes cues from the angry mechanical howls of Kevin Drumm’s work and supports them with a keener sense of dynamics than "Body Parts." If the first piece’s tentative structure found Mazurek slowly piecing together his electronic homunculus, "Electric Eels" finds the monster with all connections intact–and springing to howling, unstable life. "Electric Eels" is a volatile, shrieking piece of work–but unlike Drumm’s unyieldingly bleak work, the piece acts as an unexpectedly significant payoff to the "Body Parts"’ various indulgences. Amidst the cathartic shrieks of electro-genesis, "Electric Eels" ambles furiously through Mazurek’s industrial sound-scapes, both terrifying and thrilling the listener with its dangerous unpredictability.
Regardless of this record’s unfortunate outcome, Mazurek will remain as talented a trumpet player as he ever was, and Mego will no doubt continue to release brilliant records interminably. But one question remains unanswered: how can an album ostensibly about the birth of music from the vagaries of silent sound so lifeless? I suppose by posing that question I’ve also answered it (The concept sounds more interesting on from an academic standpoint than from a visceral one), but nevertheless; on an album consisting of two tracks and lasting over an hour, one expects–and should be privy to--more than the micro-dynamic interplay of manipulated sound tones. More sustained melodic passages, perhaps? Maybe a less preedictable sound-dynamics pattern than loud-soft-loud? By releasing this record, Mego implicates that someone, somewhere, is wringing their hands in anticipation for it. Whoever this person might be, I do not know; but I imagine that when this record finds it, they will turn the volume up, drown themselves in its sound, and thoroughly indulge the masochistic pleasure points this record aims–but fails–to stimulate.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-03-10