160 · 19 February 98
Crawl Unit: Vs. Silence
Although my enjoyment of extremely noisy music feels genuine and, to the extent that you can judge things like this about yourself accurately, unaffected, there is always a small kernel of self-consciousness lurking somewhere in it, because a part of me is never entirely confident that there's not some sense in which I don't really like the music as much as I like the idea of liking it. I have this same thought about pesto, too; do I really like it, or do I eat it as an endorsement of the cookbook The New Basics and its corresponding lifestyle, a studied confusion of decadence and socio-cultural awareness that makes it acceptable to eat caviar as long as you believe, in good faith, that the bulk fishermen responsible for hauling it ashore are involved in some economically progressive employee-ownership program? There are subtle nuances to the distinction: pesto does taste good to me, but could my desire to be the sort of person that makes good pesto be so powerful that it actually determines my physical reactions? Probably. I overanalyze nearly everything, and it's foolish to think there aren't systemic repercussions. But then again, maybe I just like pesto.
The most comforting observation I've made on this subject, recently, comes from reading, in quick succession, short-story collections by Jim Shepard and Lucius Shepard, two writers who are not, as far as I'm aware, despite their adjacencies on library shelves and in my reading schedule, related in any way. Jim Shepard teaches at Williams College, and writes, at three or four year intervals, quiet, tense, writerly novels, with a variety in style and theme that, I presume, comes in large part from a life spent reading other people's books. Lucius is a science-fiction writer (at least nominally, though often the level of scientific involvement is low enough for the style to count as magic realism), with an adventurer's pedigree more in the mold of Ernest Hemingway's, if he'd spent more time in Guatemala. There are a number of ways in which they could be considered opposites, but the one that struck me has to do with the way their stories tend to end. As Lucius acknowledges, in a self-referential moment toward the end of "A Spanish Lesson", the story that concludes his collection The Jaguar Hunter, his stories tend to continue past their climaxes, in search of a moral, as if what happens is less consequential than the significance you assign to it. Jim's stories, on the other hand, often actually end before their climaxes, as if the goal of fiction is to construct the possibilities, not to choose between them. The difference between these two strategies, in short stories, is only a matter of a few paragraphs, but extend it to longer works and you have the seeds of the difference between a fiction like The Lord of the Rings, one of the classic examples of writing past the climax (Tolkien actually writes past two climaxes, and then his son appends a dozen volumes of analysis and marginalia, to make sure no aspect is left to implication), and one like the film Hurricane Streets (a grim urban romance which I won't spoil for you, except to say that its most devastating confrontation is not shown), which represent, I think, along at least one axis, polar artistic opposites. The thought I suddenly have, then, is that the only continuums of artistic expression I feel like I really understand are the ones that stretch between two seemingly contradictory extremes, both of which I nonetheless adore. If your taste in a form has only one pole, all its endeavors will slip away from it, ticking past hashmarks of declining desirability, in a perverse migration that will inevitably seem to you, at its core, to be insane. If stories, in your world, must have morals, than the ones that stop short are cowardly and fatally flawed, and you will spend much of your reading life annoyed and dissatisfied, or else you will gradually stop reading altogether. Once you find two extremes to embrace, though, you supply a logic for every point in the infinity between them. And so, in music, this idea reassures me, pure melody and pure noise are the poles to which the million shades of their intersections owe their existences, and not only is it possible that I really do enjoy listening to industrial noise, the fact that I genuinely enjoy it is probably the chief source of whatever passes for broadmindedness in my musical tastes.
If this theory is correct, then Crawl Unit's 1996 album Vs. Silence is as appropriate theme music for this column as its title suggests. It is, I'm virtually certain, the most minimal, and least conventionally musical, CD I own. The rough brown paper that lines the jewel case has a bar code, the title, and the label insignia in the bottom corner of the back cover, a few faint lines of explanatory small print occupying about a square inch in the center of the front cover, and absolutely nothing on either inside surface. The CD itself has no printing on it at all, which means that the only way to tell whether it's upside-down or not is to peer at the manufacturing numbers along the center band. The noises produced by actually playing the disc, in keeping with the packaging, fight their battle with silence on remarkably even terms. Soft hums drift into the lower reaches of audibility and fall away again, shadowy rumbles effervesce faintly in the distance, metallic throbs pulse weakly, and the gaps between noises are as prominent as the sounds that demarcate them. The unplugged version of this album would be performed by slowly, patiently flexing the sustain pedal on a piano, and waiting for the changes in barometric pressure or small tectonic shifts to agitate the strings into audibility. I suspect that many people who think of themselves as music lovers will be of the opinion that this does not qualify as music, in precisely the same way that many people who love painting really mean Vermeer, and not Jackson Pollock. You could produce more rhythmic structure by running your dishwasher empty, more sonic energy by melting a candle onto a microphone, and more emotion by frowning at a cardboard cutout of Spock. Vs. Silence is more than an hour long, and I suspect most people's tolerance for near-subliminal whir is closer to twenty seconds, which in my experience is about as long as they'll go, once the tunnel has blocked out the station they had on, before switching the car radio off.
And, indeed, I don't listen to albums like this the same way I do XTC's English Settlement. To spend an hour immersed in coruscating sonic eddies, as opposed to just letting them play in the background while I do my taxes, I usually have to invent theories about what the sounds depict. Or perhaps it's the other way around, and the act of concentrating on these noises elicits the scenarios. Whichever direction causality runs, I've got two ideas for what Vs. Silence is a recording of. The first is that this is the sound of two spiral galaxies passing through each other. If Hollywood staged such a spectacle, it would be an orgiastic pyrotechnic cacophony, rather like a West Texas tornado filled with mylar confetti and magnesium, and then flung into an oil field lined with land-mines, because the grammar of blockbuster movies has cemented explosions to collisions so firmly that they might as well be a ligature (it's gotten to where I'm taken aback when somebody drops a wine glass and it doesn't level half the block). In reality, though, given the spaces between stars, the clash of galaxies would probably be eerily serene, less a matter of detonations and billiard-angles than of fields of astro-magnetic influence, slowly passing each other by, merging and then gradually disentangling themselves again, and occasionally grazing across each other with a brief crackle of interference.
The other thing this might be, it seems to me, is a transcript, in some wavelength that registers life-sparks like infrared shows heat, of the way a city full of people moves around me, spiritually as well as physically. While this album plays, I sit by the window in my study, which looks out onto a quiet cross-street, and as the music swells and recedes, I look for visible correlations. Sometimes a car passes as a noise arrives, or a couple walks by, along my fence, their streetlight shadows skittering through the boards of the fence and across my patio like a reverse zoetrope. But this is no news; I could hear the hiss of tires on the wet street, or the murmur of conversation and the taps of footfalls, even if I turned the record off. The more inspiring moments are the ones when a burst of noise is accompanied by nothing I can see, and I'm left to imagine the other ways another soul could have grazed my sphere of influence: somewhere someone is reading Gormenghast for the first time, and comes across the passage that makes them, too, think that this is what Goldman based The Princess Bride on; somewhere someone is flipping through cable channels and comes across LA Story, and lets the remote slip out of their hand onto a sofa cushion; somewhere someone shaves their head, or decides to bake cookies, or bangs a soccer injury on the end of a table. The music (and now it is music, not just noise) swirls and soars, every moan a token of shared experience with people I cannot see. This is, I'm painfully aware, maudlin, and perilously close to tawdry new-age mysticism, but the nights are full of attempts to reach out of our shells, and this noise is no more ridiculous a soundtrack for it than the breathless QVC testimonials of the last six people who just bought a set of army knives for which I can't imagine anybody but a serial killer having a use.
Michèle Bokanowski: Cirque
The other strangest abstract sonic narrative I've come across recently is this 1995 DIFFUSION i MéDIA EP by the French musique concrète composer Michèle Bokanowski. It is a classically-structured five-movement composition, constructed out of samples from a circus performance, but the source material has been so thoroughly chopped up and recombined that the circus is no longer evident, and it sounds, instead, like we are listening, from backstage, to an alien pantomime, both the performers and the audience operating according to social and dramatic conventions we can only tentatively infer. Wild applause starts and stops abruptly, as if elation, in their culture, has no inertia. A horse gallops for minutes, getting nearer to us and farther away in non-Euclidean patterns. A woman repeats the same hiccuping laugh until it seems like it has become embedded in the walls. Shimmering tone-sequences flare up, as if the Close Encounters translators were onto something. A drum roll rattles for minutes, and then simply vanishes, as if was only making a meta-point about anticipation. The finale sounds like a Zulu raiding party, mounted on flamingos, invading a rain forest made out of railroad crossings. By the end I have very little idea what I've listened to, but a lot of ideas about the arbitrary dynamics of spectating.
Mandible Chatter: Food for the Moon
Mandible Chatter is about as good a name for an industrial-noise band as you're likely to find, neatly encapsulating the other-species'-language weirdness that many of my favorite noise records capture, but on Food for the Moon their music turns out to be constructed from more-recognizable pieces than the name implies. "Twilight of the Idylls" quantizes tribal drums into a slow march, and then uses reedy whistles to improvise variations on a short passage of African chanting. "Swirl" is a succinct, pretty etude for chiming finger-picked acoustic guitar. The half-hour title track starts out sounding like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, swerves into what seems like a stray passage from Cirque, and then ends up in the middle of a fire zone for several minutes, before emerging into a long expanse of tribal drumming accompanied by what sounds like Jawa recriminations, followed by a long interlude of Tinkerbell arguing with some recalcitrant mosquitoes and the labored breathing of an asthmatic ventriloquist's dummy, and ending with an elegant coda of acoustic-guitar and clear-morning bird chirps, as if the rest of it was a quickly forgotten nightmare. The strangest tracks are the twelve-minute "Blessings From the Kingdom of Silence", which sounds like a harried god trying to fix breakfast, assemble the universe and negotiate with a band of distressed, but chromatic, monks (left over from the previous universe, I guess) at the same time, and the short ambient meditation "The Dust Blows Forward". At the less-strange end, "So Hot" is a gentle, airy Spaceman 3 cover. It's the moody, pulsing pop of the opening track, "Sad Tree Song", though, that insects would have the worst trouble fathoming. Glassy, vaguely Celtic sine-wave spirals give way to a syncopated world-beat drum-machine percussion loop, throbbing synth-bass funk and languid duet vocals intoning a melancholy poem that is, as best I can tell, about a sad tree. Odd noises begin slashing through, towards the end, but overall the song reminds me more of a combination of Bauhaus and Peter Gabriel than the insistent clicking of ant battalions. Unless ant battalions are bigger fans of Think Tree than I realize.
Circular Firing Squad: Oxide
The kind of chitinous clamor I expected from Mandible Chatter turns up on the San Francisco electronic/experimental quartet Circular Firing Squad's ominous 1997 album Oxide. "Floating Threshold", the first of this album's three long, improvised-sounding performance pieces, is a menacing jam for growling bass moans, processed wind noises, a disorganized array of rattling metallic percussion, what sounds like a saxophone played through a digeridu and, later, a disintegrating humidifier. "Inertialess Drive", the shorter middle piece, sounds like drum-'n'-bass composed during a seizure, followed by a coma. "Moraine", the third, is like a carillon performed by rolling crowbars and utility shelves around on the floor of an abandoned factory, while whatever machines the looters haven't taken malfunction, quietly, to themselves, and somebody noodles on a fretless bass on another level. Later the machines abscond with the bass, the crowbars develop the delusion that they're either owls or hinges, and someone drags the utility shelves out into the sun, where they evaporate remorsefully. The striking thing about Circular Firing Squad, to me, is that although the individual elements of these pieces sound like the death rattles of elemental spirits of the industrial age, the collections of them sound, as industrial-noise compositions usually do not, like the result of human performance. If kids grew up reading art manifestos instead of Creem, and holding elemental spirits of the industrial age in a death grip were as easy as bar chords, maybe this is what garage bands would sound like.
Bardo Pond: Lapsed
Bardo Pond are, in structure, clearly a rock band, a five-piece ensemble with drums, bass, two guitars and a singer, but the music they wrench out of this formation is a terrifying, murky squall all the same. The rhythm section is standard enough, but singer Isobel Sollenberger's frail, distracted vocals are processed into an unintelligible watercolor blur, and then buried under a torrential, oppressive storm of guitar feedback and distortion, with the result that Lapsed sounds, even when you sit directly between your speakers, like a barbiturate-fogged basement rehearsal using badly damaged amplifiers that you're hearing, heavily muffled, through your floor. There are songs here, and even a few hooks, but they're so submerged in the chaos that the effect of the album, to me, is largely that of a single extended howl, the bits of stray melody serving as little more than surface texture. I can almost imagine that Bardo Pond and Low are inversions, along the volume axis, of the same methodical, minimalist aesthetic. What I'm not sure of is whether Bardo Pond's rock elements are likely to make them more accessible to people with lower tolerances for noise, or less. Are Picasso's cubist portraits less intimidating than Mondrian's geometries because there are people in them, or is it actually even more disconcerting to have abstract production values applied to representational material? If this were a demo tape you'd assume the band simply didn't know any better, and there's something disconcertingly flimsy about a band whose entire personality could be unraveled with two or three mixer-knob twists, but searing ugliness is part of how we understand beauty, and what more appropriate goal could art have than helping us understand beauty?
Aube: Aqua Syndrome
Although I can think of a number of bands who have made albums that seem aesthetically at odds with each other, Aube is the only one I know of whose albums could literally destroy each other. Aqua Syndrome comes in a clear plastic sleeve, inside of which, along with the CD, is a sealed pouch of blue water. It is very important that you do not shelve this package next to the album Metal de Metal, which comes in a folded piece of metal with two sharp metal clasps, or Still Contemplation, which comes in a trifold paper wrapper held shut by a metal brad stuck through the middle of the sleeve and the CD. At this rate, I fully expect the next Aube album to arrive duct-taped to a brick.
Packaging aside, Aqua Syndrome is the most surprising of what is now my eleven-album Aube collection. Akifumi's source material this time (on a limited edition of 1000, from Manifold Records) is water, and for once you can actually recognize the source in the final product. His usual trick of contorting every source into an ear-shredding howl is nowhere in evidence here, and while he makes plenty of sounds you won't trace to water, there is more than enough gurgling to prompt comparisons to more ambient material, like Future Sound of London's Lifeforms, which the overall atmosphere doesn't go out of its way to discourage. These pieces are sparer, using one water sound at a time, or two, where prior albums would layer several incarnations of their source, and there's even, for part of "Back Draft", a boomy two-note water-bass line that almost constitutes a groove. I still don't expect him to suddenly snap and start writing Riverdance rip-offs, but it's exciting to hear him testing his own stylistic boundaries.
Aube: Dazzle Reflection
This batch of Aube records also contains the first album, in my collection, on which he repeats a sound source, returning to the glow lamp, previously exploited on Stared Gleam. Actually, if we go by the copyright dates, not the haphazard order in which I happened to have located the albums, Dazzle Reflection (on the Göthenburg, Sweden label Releasing Eskimo) predates Stared Gleam, and this order is evident in the sound, as well. Stared Gleam was, until Aqua Syndrome, the most subdued Aube album I'd heard, and Dazzle Reflection seems to indicate that while some of that restraint was a function of Akifumi's relationship with the glow lamp as a source, some of it is an artistic evolution independent of sources. This earlier album, then, falls about halfway between the ambient hum of Stared Gleam and the strident clashing of albums like Metal de Metal and Wired Trap, parts of it soothing and atmospheric, other parts crazed and physically dangerous. The combination, actually, might make this a slightly better introduction to Aube than one of the more relentless albums; the thirteen minutes of "Passionate Reflex" have his trademark skull-bones-being-ground-together lilt, and the ten-minute "Dry Flicker" is insectean and torturous, but "Glimmer" mostly just fizzes and squeaks, "Afterimage" is more or less a fraying, eleven-minute, one-note guitar solo, the fluttery "Incandescence" only builds to a head-clearing volume toward the very end, and the pensive finale, "Closed Radiant", barely rises above a twinkle.
Aube: Still Contemplation
My new favorite Aube album, though, and the one I will now recommend, in the unlikely instance that anybody finds the prospect of hearing some of his music for themselves to be appealing, is Still Contemplation, a limited edition of 600, released by the Amsterdam label Staalplaat (but also distributed by Manifold), recorded live at a Dutch radio performance, using only metal. This album takes over as my favorite Aube record on three grounds, although to be honest the difference between my favorite Aube album and my second-favorite Aube album is small enough that any one of these could suffice. First, the logistics of the live performance compel Akifumi to keep the arrangements simple, so there are never more than three things going on at once, and I find that his talent for evolutionary transitions from one sound to another is even more evident in this setting than it is when he has his whole studio to work with. Second, I like the sounds he extracts from the metal, here, mostly bright, wobbly bells and insistent feedback whines, a little better than the ones on the other two albums with metallic sources, Metal de Metal and Wired Trap, both of which involve enough oppressive processing that many of their noises could have come from anything. And third, and this is the goofiest point, but perhaps also the most important, Still Contemplation is a single fifty-nine minute piece (with a single track index, even). The reason this point is sort of inane, at least to me, is that I never pay attention to the track divisions, anyway. Duration is part of the Aube experience, as I've come to relish it; if you know it's only going to last for three minutes, you treat a blistering din very differently from how you treat it when it's going to last an hour. The difference between this single piece and the albums constructed of five or six shorter ones is similar in both form and magnitude. For an hour, the sound of metal will seem infinite. Unlike with Vs. Silence, I find that I don't invent a story behind these noises as I listen to them. They are self-contained. They do not exist to reassure me, not to symbolize, not to represent. For an hour, for once in my life, all I'm doing is listening. When all the other hours are spent in a frantic effort to line up the puzzle pieces of the things in my life that seem meaningful, retreating for an hour into a space where I've resolved to learn nothing might seem like trying to provide grounding with sky-hooks, but we all have to be hooked to something.