(We Have Nearly Lost Our Language in Foreign Lands)
262 · 3 February 00
Don Caballero: Singles Breaking Up (vol. I)
I assume there's a handbook you're issued, when you're hired to write music reviews for a real media outlet, that explains the exact meanings and nuances of all the special terms you're expected to use. I should probably go get one of those jobs, only for a week, just to obtain a copy. Do they take it away again when you quit? No matter, I read fast and remember pretty well. Without that glossary, I find I'm often lost, and whenever I encounter a term I don't know, I automatically assume that it's a new way of describing Pavement, and thus something I should avoid. But after much study and triangulation, I think I have developed a functional understanding of two more subgenres. The first is "emo", whose name derives from a combination of the rhubarb-derived laxative "emodin", the skin-lotion descriptor "emollient", the archaic fee "emolument", and the local-music scene around Emory University, in Atlanta. Emo bands are thus relaxing, old-fashioned, and unmistakably Southern; the archetypical emo artist would be the Allman Brothers, if they were nearly too stoned to perform. (Several of you have already begun composing angry emails. I should mark the jokes in red.) Two real, if glib, heuristics for identifying an emo band are 1) if they sound like Buffalo Tom with a migraine, they might be emo, and 2) if anybody you know has heard of them, they're not. Some candidates I've written about are The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, Jimmy Eat World, the Gloria Record and Braid.
The other term is "math rock". I used to think this meant "the kind of music that kids on the Math Team would listen to", which frankly never made sense, since, at least at my high school, three-quarters of the kids on the Math Team had no interest in music at all, and the other one was either the world's biggest Dokken fan or else the son of their merchandising manager. My next theory was that it referred to music whose virtues could be calculated, but not directly observed. This, too, is wrong. Math rock is, in fact, educational lyrics set to glucose-addled bubblegum pop, like those Chipmunk-voiced explications of the Bill of Rights or the tax rules for Non-Farm Income that used to be shown on Saturday morning television before they were crowded out by toy tie-ins. If we ever want kids to learn anything from cartoons again, somebody will have to put out an aggressively-marketed set of multi-function action figures based on minor federal functionaries, like the Librarian of Congress (with monocle-mounted Dewey Decimator) or the Secretary of the Interior (who turns inside out to become, of course, the Secretary of the Exterior, or, if you peel the slime decals off, a disemboweled post-nuclear mutant). What math rock actually is, it turns out, is violently oblique and complicated rock music performed with intense straightforwardness, something like a thrash-punk King Crimson, or how Primus would sound if you could strip them of their sense of humor and suppress the nagging suspicion that when Les Claypool watches Deliverance he roots for the banjo. The closest I've come to math rock, probably, is Thought Industry (a little too deranged) or Trans Am (not dissonant enough). If I'm understanding this all correctly, Helmet were both emo and math.
And if I'm not understanding it correctly, and this odds-and-ends compilation from Pittsburgh trio (later quartet) Don Caballero isn't effectively A Young Person's Guide to Math Rock, then I really don't want to know about it. I would like to trust my instincts, and my instincts said, as soon as this record started playing, "Oh, they meant math rock! Now I get it." You'll need a singer to be emo, but math rock is actually easier without one. Don Caballero's songs are arranged for one or two guitars, one bass and one drummer and, except where somebody's count-off leaks into an instrument microphone, no voices. They rarely stay in one key or tempo for more than a handful of measures, if you can call them measures. The guitars are distorted and menacing, the bass lines often appear to have been transcribed from rock slides, and the drumming is dizzying, like being attacked by a swarm of wasps the size of helicopters. At times they sound to me like Voivod's smarter older brothers, at other times like a cross between post-guitar-resurgence Rush and pre-jazz-fission Fugazi. There are thirteen tracks here, spanning five years and seven releases, and if I examine them closely I can discern a subtle progression, but it's only that the later songs are a little darker and slower in certain places, which if this was a single set could be explained by sheer exhaustion. If I'm not watching the CD-player readout, the track indexes don't really register; there are jump-cuts within songs every bit as abrupt as the ones between them. The faint traces of bluesiness in "Trey Dog's Acid", the second-to-last song, could easily be a coincidence, like the millionth monkey typing a paragraph or two of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals before lapsing back into his base-47 transcription of pi. Mostly this album is like getting mauled by an excitable gang of nihilistic own-strength-ignorant Tiggers, or like being dragged along on a relentless expedition to find and catalog all the chord progressions that have never before appeared in a rock song, or like the enraged writhing of an adolescent recording studio to which the grim news has just been broken that it's not going to grow up to be a mine borer. Maybe none of these sound like much fun, to you, but then I hate roller-coasters, so we each pick our machines for inducing adrenaline.
(I don't think this album's title and cover art have anything to do with math rock, but they're my favorite that I've come across in a very long time, possibly ever. Singles Breaking Up is an inspired rejoinder to the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady, I think, and for the liner art they brought the idea to life by spelling out the band's name in unsleeved seven-inch singles across a city intersection, and then photographing the words' disintegration in traffic from on top of a nearby building. The telephoto shots of puzzled pedestrians stopping and bending over to look at the records, and thus presumably placing themselves in peril of being struck by cars, is the kind of unselfconscious tribute to a well-conceived piece of public conceptual art that always made me wish Christo wouldn't warn people before wrapping something.)
Blue Man Group: Audio
The cuddly, upbeat version of Don Caballero, arguably math rock in the same way that 10 Things I Hate About You is Taming of the Shrew, but evocative nonetheless, is Audio, the first album by the theater collective responsible for the apparently inexhaustible (New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas) show Tubes. The booklet expounds at some length on how integral the music is to the show, but after hearing a lot of non-rock-fans enthuse about it, I've come to believe that the music is actually little more than an expression of energy and enthusiasm, and sufficiently subservient to the three players' surreal, blue-headed stage antics that it doesn't really matter whether you pay it any closer attention. The constructed environment of Tubes is noisy, like in the constructed environment of a roller-coaster the scenery moves really fast, and it doesn't really matter whether you'd like that in isolation.
Personally, though, I've been waiting for this record since the first time I saw the Blue Man Group, catching only the last minute of a performance on Leno and thus not knowing that they weren't just a rock band with funny costumes. On stage, the focal points of the musical performances are their elaborate PVC-pipe percussion contraptions, and these add a distinctive, airy touch on record, too, but whereas on stage the rock core of the band is hidden in a loft, on record it takes over by virtue of sheer volume. The players' fondness for tricky time-changes is modulated by an Oingo-Boingo-ish party-rock effusiveness, a guilty penchant for mid-Eighties drum treatments on the order of "I Know There's Something Going On", an inability to resist the lure of surf-rock and spaghetti-western flourishes, and the devout belief that a rock song is never really underway until the guitar player stomps on his overdrive pedal. This is rock, but rock from an alternate universe in which the synthesizer never really caught on as anything other than a novelty while the Roto-Tom spawned an entire industry, in which the kids trying out instruments in music stores have to be begged not to play Big Country's "Balcony" instead of "Stairway to Heaven", where we all dreamed of putting on latex masks and getting up in front of a crowd to wail away on re-commissioned plumbing with cricket bats, where rock songs are meant to sound like you've played them ten times a week for as long as you can remember, not improvised them one night while drunk. If this is math rock, it's the slickest math rock album ever, and maybe if this is all you know of the genre, you'd be ill-advised to get into any arguments about it. But then again, you probably don't know anybody who's any better informed, and in a room of people who can't read, the man who's seen the movie is Homer.
Japancakes: If I Could See Dallas
Somewhere I read a description of Japancakes that claimed the band performed hour-long sets consisting of only a single chord. Maybe they do, but sadly, this album isn't a recording of one. Perhaps these eleven instrumentals were each inspired by one chord, and they certainly all have mesmerizing qualities, but none of them are literally drones. Although the rhythm tracks are calmer and more patient than Don Caballero's, I don't think they're entirely unrelated; the rest of the instrumentation, however (and the credits list six full-time band-members and seven other players), invokes referents as various as Kraftwerk and Ry Cooder, wheezy synth runs twining around elegiac pedal-steel guitar, watery marimbas rippling under mournful violins. At least one song seems to be a thought-experiment aimed at deciding what Low would sound like with a rock drummer, and several seem to me like they could have been born out of a qualified dissatisfaction with how little of their rock background the members of Rachel's allow their playing to display. Parts have the pensive distraction of Mogwai or the Willard Grant Conspiracy, but a drowsy Mark Knopfler-esque melody almost always swoops through and galvanizes them into slow motion. What the "Japan" in the name signifies, I have no idea, unless there's a language in which "Japancakes" means "like This Mortal Coil transplanted to Abilene", or "like the American Music Club humanizing a Michael Nyman concerto", or "like techno for Luddites". I wanted to be tormented, but it would be perverse to resent an epic serenade just because you thought it was going to hurt.
The Blue Ontario: New Frequencies
Guitarist Jason Begin and drummer Ron Marschall, who are half of the Blue Ontario, were previously half of Christie Front Drive. Traces of CFD's anthemic claustrophobia are sporadically detectable, and Marschall's drumming, in particular, doesn't seem to me to have changed much to accommodate the new band's aesthetic, but the Blue Ontario are an order of magnitude more restrained. The vocals are delivered ethereally and often submerged in the mix, and the guitars shimmer as often as they howl. The two unretouched band songs here, the rumbling "Lost Astronaut" and the noisy and distended "Twenty Three", both remind me of Curious Ritual on a not-so-pop day, and if Japancakes are a This Mortal Coil for the American frontier, the Blue Ontario could be a version for the snow-locked northern towns, if not Toronto then at least Hüsker Dü's Minneapolis, after their anger has had a decade to dissipate into the brief summers.
Three of the five tracks on this EP, though, are remixes, and only one of them is of one of the first two songs. Sundog's seven-and-a-half-minute "Certainly a Burglary" mix of "Halo" takes a surging bass line à la one of U2's techno-glam outings or BT's "Blue Skies", and surrounds it with fretful drum loops, slabs of near-featureless guitar noise, bits of movie dialog and random sound effects until it reaches the abstraction of Koyaanisqatsi. Christian Rolla's "One Giant Leap" mix of "Lost Astronaut" makes it sound remarkably like Nine Inch Nails, an impressive trick but not necessarily a valuable one. And the "Self Annihilation" mix of "Permanent Wave", by Chapter 23, sounds like what you might get if you took a gauzy three-minute pop song and Xeroxed it until it turned into a mono-hued seven-minute blur. Which is almost what I thought Japancakes would sound like.
Christie Front Drive's other guitarist, Eric Richter, headed in the opposite direction to find a name, but ends up with a strikingly similar sound. Most of the eleven tracks on this double album (and if I were me I'm sure I'd have ditched at least one and put the rest on a single disc) are densely atmospheric rock near-instrumentals. One of the new members must have brought along their Joy Division/New Order/Mike Oldfield collection, though, as dour synth-pop impulses manifest themselves in several places. "Return to Omma Dawn" is the explicit Oldfield homage, but "Ultra Nørsk" seems tenuously related to Spandau Ballet, "Hallucinus" reminds me of some Simple Minds instrumentals, "Exisis" isn't that far removed from the Future Sound of London, and I suspect "Arctikal", which is unnervingly Pink Floyd-ish at this slow pace, would sound like Jean Michel Jarre if it were faster (and to me the idea that Jean Michel Jarre is double-speed Pink Floyd is enough to validate an album by itself).
The thing that unbalances this album for me, though, and makes me increasingly restless as it progresses, usually reaching the point of intolerance long before it ends naturally, is that it is not the album the first three songs convince me to want. "Absence", the opener, is a twittery, retroactive New Wave classic, maybe "Bizarre Love Triangle" and a-ha's "Take On Me" filtered through Propaganda and the Chameleons (and later Jimmy Eat World), colored as its ancestors weren't by the knowledge of its own mortality. The swirling echoes of "Tower of Silence" and the bleary guitars on "The Velvet Flood" are even more Chameleons-ish, but the singing sounds like Translator on one and Buffalo Tom on the other, the synth arpeggios in the former's choruses are straight out of Minor Detail or "Images of Heaven", and the latter seems to me to spend its whole duration a second or two away from bursting into the Red Rockers' "China". After this beginning, I don't want abstruse, elusive meditations, I want "I Melt With You" and "Europa and the Pirate Twins" and "Always Something There to Remind Me". And 61:10 is too long to wait.
The Hope Blister: Underarms
What I really thought Japancakes would sound like is "Sweet Medicine", the opening track on Underarms, an odd mail-order-only collection of disembodied instrumentals and miscellaneous outtakes from the Hope Blister's one real album, ...Smile's OK. For almost eight minutes, one breathy chord reverberates, and around it small noises click, whir and sigh, never seeming to threaten the drone. "Friday Afternoon" uses a few more tones, more like Brian Eno's Music for Airports. "Iota" is dimly rhythmic, using multi-tap delay to make percussion loops out of stray environmental noise. "Dagger Strings" and "Happiness Strings" are, unsurprisingly, the string sections from two of the album tracks, left to their own stately, legato devices. "White on White" is mostly ominous bass rumbles and angelic exhalations, somewhere between Aube and Enya. And "Sweet Medicine 2" is another thirteen minutes of the same enraptured chord. Measured in notes, or individual ideas, this record is short to the point of evanescence, but to me all the This Mortal Coil and Hope Blister songs have been stages in Ivo Watts-Russell's ongoing search for the elemental essence of the 4AD aesthetic, and these, with the "song" almost distilled completely out of them, suggest that he's almost there.
Breathless: Blue Moon / Moonstone
Dominic Appleton sang on four This Mortal Coil songs, including the timeless covers of Gene Clark's "Strength of Strings" and Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos". The rest of the time, he is the leader of Breathless, whose existence I somehow managed to avoid ever noticing until what I assume are reissues of their old albums began turning up in the bins here recently. The first three (The Glass Bead Game (1986), Three Times and Waving (1987) and Chasing Promises (1989)) are superb period-pieces in the mold of the Chameleons and the Comsat Angels, possibly as if those two bands had been combined and signed by 4AD. Blue Moon, the new Breathless album, and the first since 1994, is rather more given to spaced-out instrumental digressions than the Chameleons ever were, but I'm gradually learning to adapt my metabolism to its somnolent pace. As with Antarctica, I think it's only hard because there are rock songs hiding in the Bliss-Out fog, and they interfere with my concentration on the ebb and flow around them. If you can find the two-CD version of this album, though, the second CD is a bonus called Moonstone, which consists of two untitled tracks lasting a total of nearly fifty minutes, and this is the one I've been listening to without any effort or reservation. If these instrumentals bear any direct relation to the songs on Blue Moon itself, it eludes me. They sound like Appleton locked himself in a studio with the tape running and just wandered around it, coaxing one or two notes out of each instrument or wall and then leaving them ringing, feeding back or decomposing while he contemplated the next one. Compared to these, Tales From Topographic Oceans are limmericks. If these are pop songs, they're for whales. But I have an extremely high tolerance for interminable, evolutionary, ambient soundscapes. Maybe this is just the sound of Dominic Appleton poking around in a room, but my rooms don't do this when I prod them, and I wish they did.
After Pages From the Book, I considered never buying another Aube record. Regarded in retrospect, everything before then seems to lead to Akifumi Nakajima's cryptic deconstruction of a Bible, and his body of work thus seemed so complete, to me, that making more records, or listening to them, might somehow jeopardize his legacy, or my interpretation of it. But as ruefully as I may describe these records, I really do enjoy them. Nobody else I listen to has the requisite discipline to write biographies of substances and objects without anthropomorphizing them, to tell the story of a thing's own nature instead of the story of how we perceive and pity it. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is no more documentary than anime; Fiorella Terenzi's "enhanced" transcriptions of radio-telescope data are hardly better than taxidermy misconstrued as puppetry. And if all the Aube albums I already have are now chapters in the build-up to Pages From the Book, to me, then the new albums are just as likely to be chapters pointing toward another revelation, and I'll want to be ready for it when it comes.
Fittingly for my new Aube beginning, the next two releases after Pages From the Book were Iris Light reissues of older material. Of the four tracks on Flare, two are 1993 studio and 1992 live versions of the fluorescent-light/glow-lamp piece "Luminous", and "Vibrate-Flasher" and "The Silent Light" are the two sides of a 1995 seven-inch. All four are unmistakably old-school Aube, marathon stretches of sanity- and speaker-threatening cacophony, without any pretense at musical structure on any level. Glow-lamps sound innocuous, especially compared with metal and wires, but their secret lives are as vivid as yours and mine, and the loud parts of these pieces are just as bracing as anything on Wired Trap or Metal de Metal. The live version of "Luminous" is particularly unnerving, as for several minutes in the middle it sounds like members of the audience are filing placidly onto stage to be sawed in half. There are more impressively daunting Aube records, but Flare makes the same basic points, and it seems to be readily available, so if you want a place to start, it should serve.
The companion reissue, Flush, reaches back even further for two tracks from a 1992 cassette, two from a 1993 seven-inch, and one more 1992 live performance. All five are made from the sound of water, which means that Akifumi's distinction between "source material" and manipulation is probably more obvious on these pieces than it is when he's working from medical apparatus or sheet metal. This isn't a surf-noise relaxation tape, it's the sound of parts of your consciousness collapsing under ocean pressure, or the earth fidgeting below all these seas and rivers. The water never sounds malicious, exactly, but it's clear that its power is so far beyond human scale that if it crushed us, with a sudden twitch, it would never notice. Some of these noises come from drops, but for the most part I take this to be the internal monologue not of water as separable units but of all the water on the planet, including the gallons that make up more than half of our bodies, collectively pondering its identity. Water, it turns out, is animated by passions every bit as ferocious as the ones that haunt glow-lamps. I suppose one could argue that this is a biographer's failing, that if the stories of water and glow-lamps both include deafening blasts of white-noise then the blasts don't belong to the subject at all. But I take it to be a tenet of Aube's records, not a limitation. Any object harbors serenity and apocalypse, and you haven't understood a thing until you've figured out how it voices both.
And if the similarities between Flare and Flush leave you needing to be convinced that Akifumi doesn't simply own a machine that turns any input into the noise of your brain being pulverized, all you have to do is juxtapose Flush with Ricochetentrance, another album made from the sound of water six or seven years later (released in 1999 on the multinational label Lunar, in a limited edition of 1000). As overwhelming and all-consuming as Flush was, Ricochetentrance is understated and reticent. Returning to water, after years spent studying other elements, Akifumi hears character traits he either overlooked the first time, or undervalued. If Flush sang of the crushing weight of water, and the way erosion tears grooves into the earth, this one is about oxygen content, and how no water is ever silent, no matter how still, and how subtle the distinction sometimes is between water and air. Noises fade in and out like fluctuating humidity. For once, the only physical precaution you need to take to get through this album without discomfort is to urinate before track four begins.
Aube: Blood-Brain Barrier
It's far too soon for the second Aube cycle to reach a conclusion, but four albums into it I have my first clue about the direction it might progress. Blood-Brain Barrier (on the French label Ytterbium) isn't the first electroencephalogram record (Evocation is the other one I have), nor the first to focus on the body the machine is monitoring, instead of the machine itself (Cardiac Strain was made from heartbeats), but still, humanity has been notably absent from Aube's records. A heartbeat is not a life, is not even much of a synecdoche for a life, nor are brain waves. I wonder, are people harder to grasp, or easier, than water and glow-lamps? We are more complex systems, but complexity doesn't always produce depth or texture; compare the private lives of a Lear Jet and a bicycle. Blood-Brain Barrier hints, I think for the first time, that Akifumi may be ready to confront us. Parts of this record are rhythmic, parts articulated almost like language. The macro-structure of these pieces is familiar, but the micro-structure is not. Playing air-guitar to it would still look like epilepsy, but you could impose measures on much of it, not because it's been composed but because people can't afford the same patience as oceans. If Akifumi listens to us, he'll hear less sustain, more beats. A hour is a moment, to water, but thousands of moments to us. We want music we can dance to because if we stand still we fear we're forfeiting critical pieces of our brief existences. You can't exactly dance to Aube, even this, unless you've learned to dance to the hum of your own blood circulating. But don't bet that you won't.
Jan Garbarek / The Hilliard Ensemble: Mnemosyne
I've been known to play Aube records as background music, but a few brief experiments quickly convinced me that this is, by other people's standards, freakish. I think I choose background music not by how it sounds, but by whether I find it provocative or evocative. Anything I've already made up my mind about, no matter how abrasive or confrontational, can serve as ambience. It reminds me of something, without requiring my active involvement, and thus serves as my equivalent of the rotting apples the father keeps in his desk drawer in One True Thing, even though the precise point of those was to engage a physical sense, not a receptor of truth. I focus most effectively, as best I can tell, when I'm partly and consistently distracted. The distractions provide contrasts, and comparators of scale. Some comparators are more general-purpose than others; I don't attempt to do my most abstract philosophical reasoning while listening to Black 47 or Meat Loaf, for instance. The most malleable background record in my collection, which I reserve for the most demanding reveries, has for some time been Officium, ECM producer Manfred Eicher's first cross-breeding of Jan Garbarek's discreet, New-Agey saxophone improvisations with the Hilliard Ensemble's early-music choral arrangements. It is, as far as I'm concerned, utterly without literal sense, but steeped in reverence and an imperturbable faith in human nobility. It goes on and on, and never changes in any significant way. Mnemosyne, the two-CD sequel, is almost twice as long, so I like it before it even starts. The liner notes explain the other difference: on some of these pieces, based on fragments of scores, the singers are improvising too. Maybe this will be painfully apparent to you. I can't tell. Oh, that's not quite true; in the scored pieces all four vocal parts tend to be in motion at once, where in the improvised ones one singer will solo while the others execute a holding pattern. Garbarek backs off while a solo is unfolding, and then joins in with a counterpoint once he sees where it's going. I can tell, I just don't care. My relationship to Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble improvising around Peruvian folk-song fragments is identical to my relationship to Jan Garbarek improvising around a Hilliard Ensemble performance of Thomas Tallis or Hildegard von Bingen. The vocal parts are the ancient progenitors of the music I mean when I say music, and the saxophone is my mental superimposition of modern melodic order onto it. The meta-messages of this music, to me, are that all styles are concurrent, and that all songs are manifestations, equally, of the religious impulse, Don Caballero and Aube as surely as a church choir or the Ode to Joy. I may claim to be an atheist, but that should fool nobody. The religious content of these songs isn't what betrays me, it's the attitude with which I listen, to this and to everything. I extract truths out of music that do not originate in my body, and which I cannot count on verifying through my own experience. And if that isn't the definition of the conversation between a soul and a god, however mundane its avatars, then what is?