The Madness That Comes in a Chorus of Bells
97 · 5 December 96
It is a sign of the abjectly sheltered rock life I live that the thing that drew my attention to Rachel's was the back of one of their albums, turned toward me, with a list of seventeen participating musicians on it. "Imagine!", I said breathlessly to myself. "Seventeen musicians playing on the same album! Is there any precedent for such a Herculean labor of logistics?" I was halfway to the register, my mouth still hanging open in disbelief, when the little voice in my head that sometimes, though not quite as often as I'd like, keeps me from doing especially idiotic things, pointed out that musical gatherings of this size were, if you count hundreds of years of classical music, some of it made by me during middle school, not entirely unheard of. But I bought the album anyway, because, well, what kind of reason not to buy an album is "band not bigger than an orchestra"?
And anyway, Rachel's turns out to have less of a large cast than a revolving one. The core players, violist Christian Fredrickson, pianist Rachel Grimes and bassist/guitarist Jason Noble, are joined on various tracks by four other bassists (credited with Contra Bass, Double Bass, Upright Bass, and Double/Electric Bass, which I think even those ADS-plagued CD-ROM prodigies on breathless multimedia-encyclopedia commercials could tell you aren't four different instruments, though the bass clarinet another one plays might throw them off), two cellists (one "cello", one "violoncello"; now you see why uniform keywording schemes are so hard to implement), two violinists, a couple drummers, a vibraphonist and an "orator". Some of these players have other lives in punk bands, but anybody who arrives here by following Rodan discography footnotes is liable to be surprised, if not appalled, as Rachel's is a deadpan modern-chamber-music ensemble that makes no notable concession or reference to its members' outside lives, whether past or ongoing.
Handwriting, the band's 1995 debut, is perhaps less a coherent album than an anthology of accumulated ambitions. "Saccharin", "Seratonin" and "Handwriting" are dark, somber string trios, thick with growling bass on loan from the opening of Gorecki's third, and reverently studied in the Michael Nyman technique of building musical tension through methodical note repetition. "Southbound to Marion" exchanges bass for Grimes' moody piano, and the short "Frida Kahlo" is hers alone. These five shorter pieces, however, to me coexist uneasily with the album's two longer experiments. "M. Daguerre", an inexorable and lugubrious broken-organ-grinder-ish elegy (whose grim parody of merriment is provided, I only just realized, by a high-school friend of mine, ex-Coctails vibraphonist Mark Greenberg), sounds like a cross between a roomful of earnest Nyman seminar attendees and the house band from the Mos Eisley Cantina rehearsing for an Unplugged appearance. The fifteen-minute "Full on Night", the other strange track, starts off like an obsessive guitar student trying to note-for-note some Randy Rhoads classical-guitar noodling at half speed, and after a few minutes trails off into a long ambient tape-loop collage of howling train noises and a few choppy dialog samples. Little effort is made to link the serious music to the noise, and I'm left feeling that the band is either intentionally handicapping their classical impulses out of unnecessary self-consciousness, or else they just couldn't think of any weird noises to go with the other five songs. Still, both approaches are intriguing on their own, and the mysterious and evocative booklet that accompanies the disc helps to suggest that the band intends more than it has yet managed to express, so I'm pretty sure I would have given them a second chance even if I hadn't been buying these albums in reverse order.
Rachel's: Music for Egon Schiele
And indeed, the second Rachel's album, Music for Egon Schiele, released earlier this year, is a paragon of focus. Composed as the live accompaniment to a drama/dance recital about a minor (i.e., not mentioned in my edition of Timetables of History) early twentieth-century Austrian artist, Music for Egon Schiele finds the ensemble reduced to Grimes, Fredrickson and cellist Wendy Doyle, who wind gracefully through a muted, eloquent and impeccably balanced minor-key suite, echoing period music without ever descending into strict academic literalness (which, given my low tolerance for twelve-tone, is probably fortunate). Sadly, though, all the nerve endings of my classical music receptors were sanded off many years ago, with the result that it takes some form of garrulous or ostentatious excess to make much of an impression on me any more, and this self-contained and stylistically straightforward soundtrack possesses neither. I listen to it, and I like it, but it makes no further impression on me.
Rachel's: The Sea and the Bells
Music for Egon Schiele's significance, however, extends beyond its own length, as its concentration and coherence is experience vividly evident to me in the utterly mesmerizing third Rachel's album, The Sea and the Bells. The band returns to Handwriting's structure, with bells, two drummers, bass, three cellos, two violins, an extra viola, musical saw, clarinet and trumpet joining the trio at different points, but this time the various instruments seem to me to all be playing in service of a common musical cause, marrying experimental impulses Handwriting merely hinted at to a solid classical sense of self now grounded firmly in the accomplishment of Egon Schiele, and to me this is where Rachel's finally tears itself free of the crowded genres against which the first two albums strained. Threads of atmospheric ambience and rock drive are woven around a solid string and piano core that moves beyond superficial reliance on rigid Nyman-esque pulsing, and begins to investigate some of Nyman's subtler tricks, like cycling polyrhythms and mid-phrase half-step modulations, while flirting with lithe, elusive melodies, the elements all fusing, for the first time, into a flowing whole, rather than politely taking turns. The drums on "Rhine & Courtesan" are half orchestral timpani, half rock kit; the creak of masts and stays in the middle of the song are context, not digression. The string septet on "The Voyage of Camille" sighs and swells like the breath of a living creature or the sea itself. Noble's vibes on "Tea Merchants" blend with Grimes' piano as if the piano has merely developed a split personality. Drums coalesce out of the fog of "Lloyd's Register" like they were there all along but we are only now able to make them out, and then proceed to lead the song into a jagged storm of percussive fury, which it emerges from reborn, gasping and amazed. Noble's guitar and recorder feedback on "With More Air Than Words" leads directly into the eerie tranquillity of "All Is Calm"'s humming cello, viola and oscillating piano. Chattering tape spectres torment the sawing, epic "Cypress Branches" like a scene out of a wordless radio-play of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and swarm into the viola choir of "Sirens" like the very air is possessed, leaving "Night at Sea" tense and unearthly. "Letters at Home", finally free of spirits, is subdued but hopeful, distracted bells clinking around its edges like the sounds of someone collecting their effects in anticipation of a homecoming, and "To Rest Near To You"'s fireworks are the sounds of the last night, celebration tinged with equal parts wistfulness, impatience and regret. But "The Blue-Skinned Waltz" is choked, and "His Eyes" is guarded and introspective, and somehow I know, even before I get to the end of Noble's long, haunting poem in the exquisitely printed book, that this story, as all great sea tales seem to, has ended with a question, not a reunion, and an ellipsis that is not the curtain closing but irresolution hanging, suspended in the wind.
If an album of instrumental music that tells a story is too concrete for you, though, there's always Aube, Akifumi Nakajima's prolific one-man sound laboratory, more abstract music than which you will be hard-pressed to find. There is a trick you can play on Aube fans, actually, which I feel comfortable revealing to you because the likelihood of your meeting an Aube fan without assembling it yourself is statistically insignificant. The trick is this: you can invent a literally unlimited number of fictional Aube albums which you can claim to own and adore, driving the fan you'll never meet insane with envy. For each one, you need only to fill out the following form: "It's called (combine any two whole or partial words having to do with industry or math). It's a limited edition of (pick a number from 500 to 1500), on some label called (pick another word or two involving industry or esoteric superstitions) from (pick any country where public buildings have fluorescent lighting and climate control). Everything on it was made from only the sound of a (pick any object, no matter how innocuous or mute). It's deliriously difficult to listen to, and thus totally cool."
Allow me to demonstrate: "It's called Magnetostriction. It's a limited edition of 777, on some label called God Factory from Holland. Everything on it was made from only the sound of a magnetic resonance spectroscope. It's deliriously difficult to listen to, and thus totally cool." You see? Unless you are able to locate one of the 776 other copies of this disc, you will have no way of knowing whether this album is real or something I invented to amuse myself.
How a magnetic resonance spectroscope was coaxed into producing any noises at all, I'll admit I have no clear idea. The ones Aube elicits, though, have some of the characteristics you might imagine, if you posit that they exist. "Spectrum", the first track, has a lot of distant alien moaning, like the radiation from galaxies scraping against each other translated into the audio spectrum by a very loud device at the other end of a very large, and very empty industrial-park warehouse. "Head Demagnetizer" (a track I refuse to play without disconnecting my cassette deck from the rest of the stereo system first, because I don't think these titles are idly assigned) spends a few minutes making thoughtful noises like restless windshield wipers on the eyes of a quiescent robot praying mantis, and then, just when you've started to relax (6:46 on my player's counter; you've been warned), explodes with a blast of white noise that, depending on the dispersion angle of your speakers, might obviate the need for dusting most of your listening room. The noise doesn't seem to wake the mantis, but from the menacing sounds of the rest of the track, I think it's safe to conclude that robot mantises dream of something a lot less pastoral than electric sheep. "Scan", the third movement, sounds like an answering machine recording of a dot matrix printer attempting to reproduce the entirety of Ulysses while reality slowly comes loose from its moorings around it, with the result that by the end of the track the printer has begun to confuse Joyce with its escape sequences and has developed, in turns, delusions that it is actually a hedge-trimmer, a Golf GTI exhaust pipe, and the space in the radio spectrum where a low-power evangelical station used to be before Cthulhu devoured it whole. And since, except for the one big blast in "Head Demagnetizer", this has all been uncharacteristically non-confrontational, "Paramagnetism" conjures up a noise not unlike God using your head as the ball in that game where it's attached to a paddle with elastic and you try to keep hitting it until somebody in your immediate environs is forced to sever your paddle arm from your body to get you to stop. This only lasts for a few minutes, though, before it tapers off into a quarter of an hour of the alternately plaintive and petulant cries of orphaned subway cars and the disembodied souls of replacement parts for machines too obsolete to ever again be repaired. Toward the end I think the cars and the parts band together to form some sort of ghoulish mechanistic vengeance-seeking vigilante device, but by this point I'm hiding in the other room hoping that if I'm not wearing anything metal they'll mistake me for some sort of harmless futon accessory.
Aube: Metal De Metal
It's called Metal De Metal. It's a limited edition of 1000 or something (the exact figure eludes me because the sticker that said the number wouldn't stick to the dangerous metal case the disc comes in, which I've had to keep on a separate to-be-reviewed pile for the past month, to keep it from maiming other CDs), on some label called Manifold from Tennessee. Everything on it was made from only the sound of metal. It's deliriously difficult to listen to, and thus totally cool.
Aube albums appear in such a quick and chaotic succession that it's difficult to tell whether Akifumi ever had any sequence in mind for them, but Metal De Metal makes a good successor to Magnetostriction, if only because its opening track, "Quell", sounds a bit like you're listening to the previous album again, only with a horribly painful ringing in your ears from playing it much, much too loud. The only way I can imagine that metal could produce this ringing noise is if you very slowly pushed an extremely rigid and microscopically thin wire directly through your eardrum and into your brain. "Mentalite Du Metal" (and no, I don't know why an album recorded in Kyoto and released in Memphis has French track titles) actually sounds like metal, though, as if David Van Tieghem is having a slow epileptic fit in a large pile of defective (they're pentagonal, maybe?) Allen wrenches. For some reason emergency medical personnel are forced to locate him using sonar, and then at the end the EMTs are massacred by aliens using an enormous saucer-mounted ray gun that, inexplicably, doesn't effect David's fitful thrashing in the slightest. "Suppression" starts off with some very quiet bell-like peals, which makes me extremely uncomfortable, since I insist on turning it up to hear what's going on, but I know at some point a terrifying high-volume attack noise is going to shred my speakers and mucus membranes without any warning whatsoever. Mercifully, this track foregoes the "without any warning" part, and just lets the bell sounds crescendo as they ring-modulate, so while I do have to adjust the volume every fifteen seconds for the entirety of the twenty-two minute track, at least at the end I don't seem to be bleeding anywhere. "Calx", next, is another slowly evolving piece, in which what sounds like a marionette with very limited maneuverability made entirely of forks is forced to dance on the back of an inverted hubcap outside a church-bell-ringing training center for ten minutes while attempts are made to beam him up using a transporter that badly needs new batteries but is, eventually, in molecule-scrambling slow-motion, successful. "Unite Plate" somehow constructs an all-metal digeridu equipped with a big stainless-steel four-octave pitch-bend lever. And "Metal Du Mentalite" returns us, unsurprisingly, to the scene of David Van Tieghem's unfortunate plight, where we discover that in our absence his spasms have gotten more decisive, and either a painfully scrawny blacksmith has taken up residence next door, or else some mischievous but dim-witted street urchins are trying to dismantle a large iron gate by tapping it with saucepans. The aliens arrive again at the end, but refuse to either lend David a hand or, at the very least, scare off those annoying children.
Aube: Infinitely Orbit
It's called Infinitely Orbit. It doesn't, for once, appear to be a limited edition at all, but it's on some label called Alchemy from Osaka. Everything on it was made from only the sound of a Roland SH-2 analog synthesizer (which, judging from the sound of things, is not a creature protected under the Geneva Conventions). It's deliriously difficult to listen to, and thus totally cool.
Remember what I said about sudden noises that can hurt you very badly? Infinitely Orbit begins with a noise so piercing that if you do not reach the volume knob of your stereo within approximately fifteen seconds of the album beginning, you will quickly find that you no longer own anything unbroken that Windex could be used to clean. On the plus side, if you happen to own nothing glass already, you can leave this playing in your home while you're away at work, and when you come home all insects within two blocks of your home will be dead. Also, all dogs, most passing Fed Ex and UPS employees, and any housebound elderly neighbors who sprung for hearing aids whose frequency response doesn't roll off around 2kHz. The noise recurs repeatedly during the rest of the title track, too, which makes it hard to properly appreciate the other gruesome grinding noises made in the song without passing out, in the same sense that spraining an ankle on a nasty chunk of basalt can interfere with your enjoyment of getting incinerated in a lava flow. "Suspend Infix I", luckily, has bone-grating noises every bit as visceral (with sporadic beeps that make it sound like your skull is being sawed open by Daleks), but no ultrasonic whine, so you can turn the song up as loud as you hate your neighbors (and any painted furniture in your home). "Damper Range", by contrast, is practically pastoral, its happy EMP chirping and good-natured basso plate-tectonic-catastrophe rumbles like the soundtrack to a Discovery Channel miracle-of-nature special from the evil anti-Earth. "Envelopment" then goes back to the mosquito-of-death whine in earnest, turning it down only to make way for a ghastly gurgling noise that sounds like a nauseated black hole right on the verge of vomiting somebody else's entire universe all over your head, followed by the sound of our own universe's gods trying frantically to close the great portals over the entrance to it, only to discover, of course, that the mechanism has been rusted shut, and so makes a mildly disconcerting noise when you force it. And "Suspend Infix II", the finale, rounds out the experience with about four more minutes of what a stale marzipan pear would hear if it were still alive when you wrapped it in thirty feet of aluminum foil and then crammed it down a running disposal without turning the water on first.
Aube / Cock E.S.P.: Maschinenwerk
You might think that a disc billed as a collaboration (whoops, forgot: It's called Maschinenwerk. It's a limited edition of 1000, on some label called Charnel Music from San Francisco. Everything on it was made from only the sound of Cock E.S.P. music, whatever that is. It's deliriously, etc.) would be a less debilitating way to experience Aube. This might have been true if it was an Aube album that Cock E.S.P. remixed, but it's the other way around, and we've already firmly established that Aube can construct the sound of your existence being very meticulously shredded out of any source material at all. I don't know what Cock E.S.P.'s "original sound source" sounded like before Aube got to it, and it's no more sensible to speculate than it is to try to eat sausages while watching Babe. "The Voice of Allergy" is almost pure white noise, "Autoburn" is like getting run over by German automobiles while being gently flayed, "Tour de Trance" is like getting run over by German subway trains while on the acid trip so bad that you give up drugs afterwards, and "Spacedub" is like getting run over by an asteroid belt while fleeing from a supernova. If the possibility of contracting a migraine headache so powerful that you forget your own name seems like excessive risk to run to find out whether you would like an Aube record, then I suspect reading about it will have to suffice.
Diamanda Galas: Schrei X
Lest you misconstrue anything I said above, I like Aube records a lot. I have six of them, now, and I play them as bedtime music, I play them at work, I play them while vacuuming, I play them while watching a bad Monday Night Football game with the sound off and reading Umberto Eco novels, and I even play them just to listen to. There's no escaping the fact that if you must draw a line anywhere between "noise" and "music", Aube will sharing a category with sounds that, in any other phase of your life, foreshadow expensive mechanic bills or prolonged hospital stays, but I don't have a problem with that. Sometimes I want to listen to music, and sometimes I want to listen to the sound of my own brain hemorrhaging. I do live in an apartment building, but the walls are relatively thick, and the room I write in is insulated by my bedroom on one side, and the living room on the other, so I almost never get any complaints.
Diamanda Galas is a whole different matter. As a general rule, I play the albums I write about while I write their reviews, but this one I'm going to do from memory. I got all the way through it once, but it was a struggle, and I'm not going to push my luck. You see, as the title suggests, this album consists of shrieking. I had read about Diamanda, and people are usually up front about the fact that her music consists of shrieking, but if you haven't heard it yourself, it's easy to misjudge what they mean. Galas is a well-respected cult figure, and she's made several albums that get sold in record stores, so you figure, how bad can it be? Björk shrieks sometimes, too, but you grimace briefly and then it's over.
No. When I say this album consists of shrieking, I mean that it is punctuated, at frequent enough intervals that there is no question of skipping to "the other parts", by the sound of a woman who could launch a thousand ships by lung capacity screaming at the highest volume and intensity level she can muster. This is a singularly disconcerting noise. Aube sounds like the world is exploding, but Diamanda Galas sounds like a live and alert female human being is being dismantled in your living room by Satan himself. The practical difference is that if your neighbors hear the sound of the world exploding in your apartment, they may be irritated and concerned (and when they find out you're subjecting yourself to it voluntarily, they may think you're insane), but if they hear the sound of a woman being disemboweled by the Antichrist, they will invite a SWAT team to come and stand outside your door and listen, and after about twenty seconds of reflection the SWAT team will put a howitzer shell through the door and most of the wall it's attached to, invite themselves into your apartment, and empty the city's annual ammunition budget into your body without pausing to assess the situation for mitigating details. Of course, you could put on headphones, and then you could turn Diamanda up as loud as you wanted, without worrying about what anybody else is hearing. However, the sound of Diamanda Galas coming from inside your head would probably make you kill yourself, rendering the victory rather Pyrrhic. So, we are left with the reality that I now own an album that I will not feel free to play again until I purchase and move to a former bank building rezoned residential, and install a stereo system in the vault.
I can wait.