Telephone and Rubber Band
24 · 13 July 95
The Future Sound of London: ISDN
A few months ago I decided that this whole "ambient" deal was getting by me, and that I ought to investigate. I've always had a visceral technology fascination, so "synthetic textures" and "sampler-fed studio creations" basically sounded pretty cool to me. On the other hand, "ambient" was too often mentioned in proximity to "Techno", which leads my mind directly to "House", which makes me think of the semester of college I spent living through a fire door from an avid House devotee, during which I swear I heard the same fucking single measure of music non-stop for three months, until the person in question was silenced through means I've been advised not to discuss until 2038, when the statute of limitations runs out.
So I've approached the subject cautiously. Somewhere about the time I began, though, I read an interesting interview with the Future Sound of London, and decided that buying everything of theirs I could find would be a useful exercise in depth to compliment the piles of compilations I was accumulating for breadth purposes. What I found was interesting, but not nearly as strange as I'd hoped. Accelerator had the dance leanings I'd expected. Tales of Ephidrina (recorded as Amorphous Androgynous) was beepy and a little innocuous. Lifeforms (and the subsequent album-length "single" of remixes) was more interesting, but I still kept wanting revolution, and instead getting something that reminded me an awful lot of what Jean Michel Jarre was up to about twenty years ago.
With ISDN, though, FSOL are finally starting to catch up with my preconceptions. This album is a collection of pieces performed live to various spots in the world via radio and ISDN phone links from the band's studio in London. The band go on at some length in the liner notes about their ambitions for this project, and their ambivalence at the results (and listening to the results on disc, rather than live in any sense, is another level of warped context to drill through), but judging just from the music, I think they are entering some tantalizingly unexplored territory.
The level of structure evident in these pieces is very interesting. None of the fifteen tracks are "songs" in the conventional sense, but neither are they random, directionless noodling. In most cases, the premeditation comes somewhere in the middle. These are improvisations, but rather than improvise at the note and sound level, like a conventional band would, FSOL build their performances out of larger building blocks, like drum loops, dialog samples, short musical passages, sound effects and bits of abstract singing. These get conjured from their tombs, run through whatever processing gear happens to be handy, and spit out mutilated into the wires to spar with whatever else is lingering there at the time. This approach lets the performers' interaction with the music be to change it, not to produce each note, and not incidentally makes it possible for a two-person "band" to pull off an incredibly complicated composition in real-time (they were joined live by Robert Fripp on some of this, probably including the track "A Study of Six Guitars", though the symbols used in the credits make it impossible to actually be sure which tracks he's supposed to be on). This whole thing is particularly interesting to me, as for years I've had this idea of creating a musical device that would let somebody perform, not as a musician, but as a conductor, only literally be in control of the music, rather than just leading it by hopeful gestures. The idea is to put the human at the point of meaning ("here the 2-4 drum beat changes to a waltz"), rather than the point of symbol creation (drumstick hits snare), thus raising the level of abstraction, and increasing the artist's power. Evidently either FSOL have already built such a device, or else with enough practice you can get the same results using current technology. These are striking experiments in the definition, use and manipulation of higher-order musical primitives.
And, in case the appeal of that is a little too theoretical (or inane) for you, they also sound very cool. The way elements enter and exit is endlessly captivating (or, 75-minutes captivating, anyway), different bits appearing and then disappearing for a while, only to later re-emerge in some mutated guise. It's like hearing a puzzle being solved by trial, with the additional detail that most of the puzzle pieces are compelling in their own rights. Though I wouldn't call anything here dance music, there are some beats that last long enough to get into, and though not all pieces have overtly musical underpinnings at all, several do have melodies you can hang onto during the ride through the aural chaos. Plus, who could dislike a track titled "Eyes Pop - Skin Explodes - Everybody Dead"?
The manifestations of this album take a little explaining. It was released in the UK in 1994, a 15-track CD in a strange black Velcro-closed cardboard folder, with no information other than the title and copyright on the outside. A couple months ago, a CD-single was released in the UK, featuring the album tracks "Far-Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman" and "Smokin' Japanese Babe", and adding the otherwise unavailable pieces "Snake Hips" and "Ameoba". At some point the limited-edition packaging ran out (or enough people complained about what a nuisance it was), and they started making copies in normal jewel cases. The US version, which came out just a few weeks ago, is jewel cased, with a white cover instead of a black one. The outside is no more informative than the UK edition, but the booklet inside has quite a bit of art and text that at least the first package didn't have (I haven't seen the inside of the UK jewel case edition). The US CD also changes the musical contents, removing the original tracks "Are They Fightin' Us", "Hot Knives" and "An End of Sorts", and substituting the single tracks "Snake Hips" and "Ameoba", as well as the track "Kai", which doesn't appear anywhere else.
Of course, having explained all that, I should point out that this music is not really track-precious, so for anybody other than an FSOL fanatic, whichever version of the album is cheapest at your local point of purchase will provide the experience just fine. Said fanatics, however, should be aware that the version of "Snake Hips" on the single is over three minutes longer than the one on the US CD, so you will need all three discs after all.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra: Concert Program
Penguin Cafe Orchestra is one of my favorite band names in the universe. As a kid I used to pause at their divider in Sound Warehouse every time I went past, wondering what they sounded like. Eventually I broke down and bought one of their albums (Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1981), just to finally find out. They turned out to be a troupe of weird-instrument fanatics, led by writer and producer Simon Jeffes, who generated odd compositions that sometimes sounded like PBS interlude soundtracks (and sometimes were, I think), and sometimes sounded like conceptual art pieces ("Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter", "The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas" and "Telephone and Rubber Band", which sounds very much like what it says). I kind of liked the record, but it didn't really fit into my usual musical idioms, so I didn't follow the group's work any farther than that.
I'd been thinking of them fondly of late, though, reminded especially by Jeffes participation in the recent Real World communal album Arcane, so when this two-disc concert recording came out recently, I sprung for the reunion. If I read a cryptic note in the liner correctly, this is the eighth PCO release, so there are evidently several I don't have. The twenty songs here include four from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, including "Telephone and Rubber Band" and the great "Salty Bean Fumble", but not, sadly, "The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas" or "Pythagoras's Trousers".
I'm not sure whether this more reflects the direction the group took on the albums I haven't heard, or the fact that this is a concert recording, but the bulk of this material is a good deal less silly than the PCO I knew. I knew them to sound something like Michael Nyman composing soundtracks for old silent cartoons to be performed on some huge steam-powered Phantasmagorical Cosmorglatron. The rest of this concert set, though, is closer to straightforward chamber music than the bizarre "let's see how many instruments nobody's ever heard of we can use on the same song" whimsicality I was so fond of. There's a lot more piano and cello than harmonium and dulcitone, and no sign of the hallowed ring modulator at all.
Once I get over my disappointment at how somber these proceedings are, though, they are quite beautiful. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra evidently function quite nicely as an orchestra, not just as a novelty act, which in the long run is probably rewarding. But, for me, not quite as much fun.
Aube: Wired Trap
Of course, if "fun" was all I ever wanted from music, I'd have shut this CD off within the first ten seconds. You will either love this, or it will give you the worst splitting headache in your entire life. Possibly both.
Aube is Kyoto composer Akifumi Nakajima, who made this album, and I quote from the liner, "Using Only The Sounds Of The Steel Wire Which Made By Yuri Shibata as Material". Nakajima seems fond of the "Using Only...As Material" approach, as I found another Aube album done "Using 1 VCO Only As Material". This one is on the Concord, NH label Self Abuse Records, which is a singularly appropriate name given the contents.
This album is sheer, unrelenting, unremitting, pummeling, raging, maelstromic, cacophonous, distorted, apocalyptic, ear-rending, mind-shredding, heart-imploding, paint-stripping, household-pest-exterminating, neighbor-alienating, friend-losing, MTV-unfriendly, equipment-dysfunction, you-are-now-dead-and-there's-a-Hell-after-all, Noise. Saying that this is "uncommercial" is like saying that swallowing a lit blowtorch would "sting". There is nothing remotely melodic or harmonic anywhere on this album. There is some occasional periodicity to the noise, but that's as close as Aube gets to rhythm. It's like you're inside a machine as big as the universe, composed entirely of aluminum sheets, and every single part is being simultaneously torn into ribbons by invisible steel-clawed monsters. If your stereo system ever made these noises on its own, you would have it exorcised. The fact that this album was made in Kyoto, and yet there are still monks there afterwards, totally baffles me.
Now you might think, from that description, that I don't like this album. You would be wrong. I like this album a lot. I find it totally fascinating. I turn it up extremely loud, and let myself be assaulted by it (listening to it any other way would be pointless, I think). After this, hearing the world actually end would probably be an anticlimax. In a musical world where extremism has become routine, it's good to know that there's still somebody making sounds completely unrelated to the rest of the spectrum.
The album is also a little more varied than I may have made it seem. The real horrors are the tracks "Wired Trap Part 1" and "Wired Trap Part II", which bracket the album. "Siege", the second piece, sounds like the aforementioned monsters methodically sharpening their claws beforehand, and breathing. It's not as monolithically overpowering, but achieves similar effects through sheer repetitive persistence, sort of like you're floating peacefully in a warm ocean, dozing, watching the stars, and only realize that the water is really acid when it's already consumed the back half of your head. "Bound Sensitivity" is even slower and sparer at the outset, perhaps the sound of a few overlooked components in the universe machine forlornly attempting to perform their functions after the carnage has subsided. It gets ugly by the end, though, as the machine survivors tear themselves to bits in their lonely despair. The fourth track, "Rub-Icon", actually sounds like the noises that part of the universe-machine might have made back when it was still functioning. Low, ominous turbine noises and polyrhythmic percussive cycles simmer and pulse purposefully. This one, too, builds up to an intimidating tempest, but it's still twelve minutes of comparative calm in the overall scheme of the album, which you probably need pretty badly by that point.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the album, after over seventy-seven minutes of this torrent have battered you, is what happens when it ends. When the nerve-peeling firestorm of "Wired Trap Part II" suddenly extinguishes itself, without warning (unless you're cheating and have switched your CD player to tell you the time remaining), and you open your eyes and realize that you're still alive, you really listened to the whole thing, and the world hasn't been destroyed after all, it's quite a cool feeling. You have been cleansed of artistic preconceptions and unquestioned cultural assumptions. You have seen a new plane of artistic endeavor, where only the work itself can impose limits or boundaries. You have transcended, for a sublime hour or so, the mental prison of convention, and moved freely in the infinite space of possibility.
Also, any metal parts on the clothing you were wearing have been reduced to slag.
various: Endless 1
For a slightly less corrosive immersion in experimental ambience, you might want to check out some compilations. I avoid anything with the words "dance" or "dub" in the title, as these tend to be goofy, annoying, and insufficiently non-linear for my tastes. Conversely, names like Null, Lull and Pointless Orchestra sounded like exactly what I was looking for, and "Endless" also captures the aesthetic pretty well. So far, this and Isolationism: A Brief History of Ambient, Vol. 4 are the best collections of methodically unnerving dark ambient music I've come across. Paul Schutze's "The Memory of Water, part one" is primarily tonal, using simple, glassy, bell-like sine-wave tones played against each other to center the piece, and drifting in other transients. Null's "Rain Trees" uses chirpy metallic rattles against a backdrop of steady robotic bass drone not entirely unlike parts of Aube's "Rub-Icon". James Plotkin's "Slow Revolutions" is almost entirely atmospheric, with virtually no sounds involving sharp attack curves. Lull's long "Way Through Staring" is liquid and nearly-subsonic, perhaps like what swimming in the Marianas Trench might sound like if it weren't for the fact that the water pressure would kill you long before you had a chance to appreciate it.
Pointless Orchestra's "Red Meat Holiday" is busier, combining muffled explosion sounds with percussion, flute-like warbling, and the assorted scrabblings of prepared crabs. P. Children's "Reverse Pool" is sort of like that sounds, kind of watery and reversed. Mesh's "I Address the Roaring Sea with a Mouth Full of Stones" isn't nearly as self-explanatory as I initially expected, unless the point is that the narrator and the sea don't actually have very much to talk about. Trance's noisy "Aurora Borealis (light)" would be much better with a different, less New-Agey name (though here maybe the goal is to infiltrate the in-store playlists of mellow crystal-and-incense shops via title subterfuge, which would certainly be amusing). Sheephead's "Bay of Hopelessness" is pretty hopeless, but not quite long enough, in this edited two-minute version, to qualify as a whole bay. "Puddle of Hopelessness" might be better. A little too much identifiable drumming on this track for my liking.
The last track is another Plotkin bit called "Live 1/3/93". The timings on the back of the booklet list this track as infinite (using the symbol, which I cannot reproduce portably in this medium) but my CD player definitely gives up on it after about four minutes, so I'm not sure what to make of the claim. It would have been interesting if they'd managed to manufacture the disc with a built-in skip, so that it really did play infinitely. Actually no, that would have been irritating.
Enough of this for now. Where's that Matthew Sweet album?