It is possible that listening to music consists less in distracting the mind from “acoustic suffering” than in struggling to reestablish animal alert. What characterizes harmony is that it resuscitates the acoustic curiosity that is lost as soon as articulated and semantic language spreads within us. — Pascal Quignard, from Hatred of Music
Since 2014’s A Wilderness of Mirrors, Brisbane-based artist and Room40 label head Lawrence English has been investigating the role of music in terror and warfare through harmonic density and extreme dynamics. His latest album, Cruel Optimism, also focuses on fragility and power (or lack thereof) in the face of human greed, malice, and intolerance. Despite the album’s foreboding bent, it is a work built upon affirmation—encouraging resilience, solidarity, and defiance despite recent global calamities. “This record is one of protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”, Lawrence writes in the album’s liner notes. With Cruel Optimism, we are kindly invited to engage in endless dialogues just like this one. For, if anyone’s qualified to talk about the primordial, often unacknowledged link between sound and violence, it’s English. We talked enthusiastically about an array of subjects, such as the politics of perception and colonialism, the (mis)uses of technology, the unfortunate depoliticization of music, and the video for Cruel Optimism’s “Negative Drone,” premiering below. Our conversation is after the jump.
Robbie Basho, pioneer of the American Raga and champion of the “Zen-Buddhist-Cowboysong,” is getting his penultimate album, Bouquet, reissued this year. Thanks to Grass-Tops Recording we can finally reexamine the late songs of the ambitious man who promoted the steel-stringed guitar as a concerto instrument. Basho (born Daniel Robinson) was a student of sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and the most elusive figure among the Takoma label trinity of acoustic guitar innovators. The exact details of his life remain shrouded in mist, although efforts have been made lately (see Liam Barker’s recent documentary) to decode the myth behind the man who managed to evoke the sublime vastness of the American landscape through unconventional tunings. His mesmerizing tracks are characterized by a wide assortment of hues and influences, which include everything from koto and classical, to Hindustani and bluegrass. Each song in Bouquet is a finger-picked hymn, an ode to love and its numerous manifestations. The original recordings, released in 1983, were awash with unwelcomed hiss, but the thorns have been clipped, revealing the stunning beauty of Basho’s voice. The reissue also includes four bonus tracks and a studio version of “Omar Khayyam Country."
Can fans have another reason to celebrate thanks to Spoon/Mute Records. Back in 2012 the labels launched The Lost Tapes collection, followed by a huge box set comprised of the band’s entire back catalogue. Now they’re prepping to release Electro Violet, a 12-CD retrospective focused on Irmin Schmidt’s riveting solo work. The set also includes his collaboration albums, the Gormenghast opera, and his Film Musik Anthology. The news arrive at an opportune time; Schmidt was awarded a Knighthood by the French Ministry of Culture earlier this year. “Two Dolphins Go Dancing” is a song from Toy Planet, his 1981 album. Listeners expecting Can’s ethno-trance jams are in for a surprise with this upbeat track; the song carries the charm of an '80s dance hit, albeit more fascinating thanks to distinctive synth flourishes and Bruno Spoerri’s hectic sax solo. The track speaks volumes of Schmidt’s ability to reach audiences without abandoning the teachings inherited from innovative giants like Stockhausen or Ligeti. Surely, one of many gems to be found in this career-spanning collection.
“Rather than moving on a journey through a musical landscape, the experience is more like sitting in the same place as light and shadows slowly change. The longer we stay in one place the more we notice change.” – John Luther Adams, from “Winter Music: Composing the North”
The description offered by composer John Luther Adams regarding a series of his extended orchestral works is akin to the experience of listening to Norman Westberg’s 13. Subdued but powerful. Monotonous yet mysterious. These tracks arouse intense feelings with frugal means. Thanks to Room40 the album has been remastered and is set to be released on November 13, granting listeners a golden opportunity to reassess and explore the prolific career of a man who’s been pushing the envelope for more than three decades with outfits like Swans and The Heroine Sheiks. During the course of our interview, the Detroit native politely spoke about his influences, his evolution as a musician, and the joy of finding a record label to call home. As with the sounds conjured by his guitar, his words were enthralling.
AdHoc: Can you start by talking about your adolescence in Detroit and the music that made strong impressions in the early stages of your life?
Norman Westberg: Well, I had older siblings. Two sisters. The closest one to me I think is 10 years older. They were buying The Beatles records when I was six. The ones that came out in ’64 and ’65. I listened to those all the time. And then The Beach Boys. Anything popular at that time.
When did you move from Detroit to New York?
I moved in 1980. There was kind of a thing in Detroit, way pre-internet, of course, were you had a choice: you could go to New York or you could go to L.A. to pursue music. I have an issue with L.A., so I moved to New York.
J.R. Robinson has never been one to shy away from mighty themes. Last year’s Then It All Came Down was based on an essay written by Capote focusing on Manson affiliate Bobby Beausoleil and the irresistible charisma that concealed his ruthless impulses. Robinson's latest effort, Night of Your Ascension, continues to delve further into themes of violence, depravity, and personae non gratae. The Chicago-based musician assembled a cast of 30 musicians—featuring members from Einstürzende Neubauten, The Body, and Bitchin Bajas, among others—and released “Run Priest Run.” The track tackles another ominous figure of recent history, Father John Geoghan, a priest accused of molesting 150 children. The song opens with seraphic voices; textures are carefully weaved before the deafening maelstrom full of shrieks and drum blasts kicks in. A flooring experience is guaranteed with this pastoral doom composition.
Night of Your Ascension will be released on November 13 via Thrill Jockey
Many eardrums have been punctured since Norman Westberg emerged as Swans' guitarist in 1983. For over three decades Westberg has remained unmatched in the tinnitus-inducing department, whether it be alongside Gira, Five Dollar Priest, or the Heroine Sheiks. Back in 2013, the Detroit native recorded a stunning three-track album, but the release was limited to 50 CD-R copies. Luckily for us, the record has been remastered and is set to come out through Lawrence English’s Room40 imprint on November 13. The label has also provided a mesmerizing video directed by Scott Morrison for the track “Frostbite Falls.” A rural landscape bathed by dusk unfolds; clouds drift and pines tremble while tension is built with the slow burning feedback of a bowed Gibson EB Bass. Both artists take a minimalist approach to their craft, focusing on the delusive nature of stillness. They are not so much focused on the leviathan, as on subtle ripples that might indicate its forthcoming outburst. The result is truly alluring.
Brooklyn-based RVNG Int. has built a reputation on delivering amazing records from classic pioneering artists, such as K.Leimer, Franco Falsini, and Craig Leon. The latest addition to that catalogue, An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 - 1979), features Ariel Kalma, another forward-thinking artist that eludes categorization. The Paris-born musician ventures through the realms of field recording, minimalism, sacred music traditions, and free jazz to create mesmerizing compositions. A fascinating documentary, directed by Matthew McGuigan and shot in New South Wales, Australia, has also been released. It details Ariel Kalma’s biography, procedures, and overall philosophy. He ponders upon the parallels of music and silence. There’s also recollections of several key moments of his life-- a few revelations, if you will-- like the time he travelled to India and discovered the freedom of improvisation or the time he witnessed an impeccable performance by the Dagar brothers in 1973.
An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 - 1979) is now available via RVNG
Chicago’s Rob Frye has never been one to lack vision or relent under projects that demand exceptional efforts. The man always delivers, whether it’s with the soothing minimalism of Bitchin Bajas, or with Cave’s boiling psychedelia. Frye's solo project, Flux Bikes, is further proof of this claim. This latest enterprise circles around a riveting and unconventional concept: using wheels as percussion instruments-- transforming his two-wheeler, with which he’s travelled on 500 mile tours, into a musical instrument. “Bell Break” is an alleviating and hypnotic lullaby that incorporates West African rhythms with low-key bell chimes. It’s just a small dosage of all the innovative electro-acoustic techniques that can be found on Prototype. With this cassette, Frye has materialized an ambitious idea, worthy of attention from those who seek forward-thinking ventures.
Brooklyn’s Lushes released What Am I Doing back in March, a confident debut album which showcased their clever brand of dynamic art-rock. Joel Myers and James Ardery seemed unfazed by the continuous conundrum that haunts most of the bands delving into experimental territory. Their tracks were uncluttered and alluring, even with evolving layers of instrumentation. The video for stand-out track "Traffic," directed by Andrew Schneider, throws Lushes right in the middle of Time Square’s chaos, presenting vehicles as machines that only seem to carry us towards stagnation. One can’t help but think of all the stop sings and red lights that will be ignored when distract by this choice track.
Future Ape Tapes recently released Pyramirrormid, another tape that marks a crucial step in the band’s ambitious trajectory. Group founders Thomas Valadez and Donald Whitehead, notoriously adept at breeding havoc, decided to expand into a full band which includes two drummers-- what started as an experimental hip-hop duo is now a boisterous infantry. Their appetite for deconstruction allows them to breach genres with ease. Traditional sounds are evoked, only to be plundered and woven into a turbulent web of memorable noise. Pyramirrormid's shape-shifting tracks possess a unique appeal, especially in a world where anti-form is so associated with the fascinating unknown.