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26 February 2017

Blake Hargreaves - 'The Waxathon' (Fluorescent Friends)

The Waxathon isn't a record that anyone remembers - I think barely anyone even remembers Dreamcatcher at this point, which is what I said at the beginning when I covered their LP four years ago - and you can currently snag a copy on Discogs for 3€. And that might be worth the investment, if you have an interest in extremely difficult outsider Canadian electro-acoustic noise circa 2001-2002. This was recorded live and sounds like it, with amp buzz a constant reminder of the arsenal of Hargreaves and so many like him. Which is not to say that this is derivative; what keeps this record on my shelf is my continual enjoyment of it; how it hails from an aesthetic time/era but sounds, almost paradoxically, unlike any of its peers. There's barely identifiable sounds from guitars or keyboards, warped vocals, and a sense of compositional construction that is curiously bereft of drama, impact or resolution. The opening cut, 'Who The Fuck Said That?', is completely the wrong way to start an album - the most minimal piece here, it stumbles along with occasional blurts of activity that sound more accidental than anything else. And it's not even mood minimalism, but just the sound of decayed, forgotten loneliness. By the end of the first side things have gained momentum - '2001: It's Saudi Duty Time' has a title which suggests a political intent, and given that this record was recorded starting in September 2001, you have to wonder if this was made in some form of response. But rather than contain any lucid narrative, the bottom keeps falling out, ending up like a bag of old cutlery being shaken out into a giant anthill. 'I Beat Cops Up the Rope Ladder' ends the side, coalescing into a violent, thick shakedown that's the closest The Waxathon ever gets to the dense wall-of-noise aesthetic, though it also keeps things spacious and ends with a tape splice just when you think it's gonna get anthemic. When I saw Dreamcatcher live a few years later I thought Wolf Eyes was the obvious influence, and you can hear that a bit on their LP, but The Waxathon feels devoid of any particular ancestor - that pulsing malevolence that Wolf Eyes inherited from their Factrix (or even Skinny Puppy) influence is nowhere to be found here. Nor is their the more dadistic, absurd side of the noise underground - even the title 'Jesus Ducks Jury Duty' and its low-mixed, buried vocal samples all serve an aesthetic that is far more alien than anything else. 'AK-420 War Journal' features sampled voice calls over a sustained harsh drone, I think maybe with his mom, pushing the question of 'what is music' and also setting an image of what Mr. Hargreaves day-to-day life was like at the turn of the millennium in Montreal. When it's over, I'm right back where I started - not really sure what any of it meant, but somehow altered by the experience.

Harmonia - 'Music von Harmonia' (Lilith)

The Russians did a nice job reissuing this, ticking all of the boxes (nice hard cardstock LP gatefold, good thick pressing, that thing where they put a plastic liner inside the paper sleeve) and even including some nice liner notes by Asmus Tietchens, in both English and Russian.  If they have infiltrated the American government's executive branch, then hopefully we'll at least get some more nice reissues out of it! You may have noticed that I don't own any Cluster LPs, though that's due to circumstance, not because I don't like them. The pairing of Cluster with Michael Rother is a true supergroup and I think the stuff with Eno on the Harmonia '76 CD is pretty good, too. This first album really gels, and the few decades since have seen its ideas repeatedly return to the vanguard, cyclically.  'Sehr Kosmisch' is the homerun, an 11 minute piece in the middle of side 1 where slowly separating and re-converging drones float over a dark pulse, with some effected newagey keystrokes plinking about in the outer speaker space, a tickling of the higher consciousness. It sounds thick and staticky on vinyl, and after a lifetime of hearing beautiful and mysterious electroacoustic soundscapes, it ranks as one of the best. It feels energetic despite its slow momentum, crackling with electricity (as does the entire record). The way it slides into 'Sonnenschein' is a magnificent transition, as the latter track explodes with a strong mid-tempo rhythm and conjures images of colonial expeditions, space travel, and the promise of plastic. Side two are made up of shorter pieces and there's a lot of motorik Neu! sounds (like the nervous 'Veterano') and warm, analog synth/keyboard tones throughout. For artists that I always think of being 'electronic music', Cluster and Harmonia are remarkably organic, with recognisable instruments throughout and a nice wooden feeling. Yet there's a futurism at play here - just listen to 'Dino', which after 40 more years of experimental sound development still sounds fresh and inviting, like an undiscovered world. 

21 February 2017

Harangue (Wilder Pryor/Enamel)

I have always loved the verb 'harangue' and it's delightful to find a band taking their name, and from my hometown as well! This was released a few years after I left town and I don't know any of the band members, but the bigger surprise is this sound - a real departure from Pittsburgh's usual emphasis on heavy rock riffs and volume. Though Harangue is loud, exploding with a somewhat raw recording that has an edge of fuzz on everything, which is to say the vocals, drums, piano and electric guitar. But what's different about it is the style of songwriting - five long songs, built around a very stylised singing style and the interplay of the piano and the guitar. The vocalist sings in a way that is nearly yelping, but still tuneful and focused. The closest comparison would be the Canadian band Frog Eyes, who I like a lot but have no records by; Harangue's vocalist has the same slightly crazed sonority and affect, and I could even say I hear a little bit of Jello Biafra in here too. It all really gels; opening cut 'Wisteria' is like knives in the darkness, and the speedy jam at the end of 'Brittle, Empty Mornig' shows what a tight musical unit they are. When cymbals start crashing it definitely gets messy and feels like you're in a basement with a determined group of young men; there are atmospheric guitar scrapes in places (the spacious bits, like 'Whitewashed Wall') and instead of solos or instrumental interludes, it feels like the whole band works together trying to take the songs into different directions. They get long - 'Uniformly Chaotic' is positively epic in scope - but it never feels samey or repetitive. Yet after the record ends, there's still a ringing in my ears. It seems like they've disappeared already, leaving only this, a limited local release and who knows what they went on to be. 

18 February 2017

Kip Hanrahan ‎– 'Coup De Tête' (American Clavé)

Coup De Tête is an odd one, and a record eclipsed by its followup, Desire Develops an Edge, if only because the latter got mentioned in The Wire magazine's list of '100 Records That Set the World on Fire'. It's hard to imagine anything about this setting the world on fire, though it's a hell of an interesting stab at bringing together a bunch of avant-leaning New York musicians and trying to create a new kind of fusion. Percussion is the main game here, with most tracks being built around Hanrahan and two or three other musicians on bongos, congas, and iya (plus Anton Fier usualy on trap drums). Both sides end with a drum-free cover version - Marguerite Duras' 'India Song' on side 1 (sung by a throaty Carla Bley) and Teo Macero's 'Heart on My Sleeve' to end the whole album (with Macero himself as guest). While listening to this you have to read the liner notes to follow who plays on what, as there's a bunch of big names almost hidden. Guitar duties are mostly Arto Lindsay but Fred Frith makes an appearance; their gutsy attacks are mixed quite low, almost inperceptible at times, underneath the percussion, but I think that was the right decision. Hanrahan is the wild card - when he sings, it's more like an earnest spoken-word chant, and as the record goes on he starts to disappear from it. He's really the producer, composer and Svengali here, more than he is an active musician, and some of the best tracks don't feature him at all. The standout is 'This Night Comes Out of Both of Us', featuring Lisa Herman (last heard on Kew. Rhone) and Bill Laswell's usual weird dub farts; somehow the percussion layers make this into a really dark, crisp, electric forest which sounds completely striking today, 36 years later. Herman's vocals are breathy and mysterious, getting into sexually explicit lyrics in 'A Lover Divides Time (To Hear How It Sounds)'. I've always really liked this record because it's a weird oddball - it feels like an environment where Hanrahan gave just enough structure to let the musicians really explore while sticking to a vision. It feels like a weird take on the idea of 'world music' while also having traces of rock and a lot of jazz but somehow not sounding like any of the above, which I guess is the best thing one could hope for from the idea of 'fusion' anyway. I don't think there's a lot of people repping Kip Hanrahan records in 2017 which means you can probably find them fairly cheap (if at all) and this and the follow-up are certainly worth your time -a rare case of a supergroup that works.

Hampton Grease Band - 'Music to Eat' (Columbia)

You probably thought the last Gunter Hampel record was responsible for the months-long bottleneck here at the Underbite (if you thought anything at all) but no, that was written and just not posted for some reason, ages ago. It's the Hampton Grease Band that's kept this from going forward, and I'm not quite sure why. Music to Eat lies somewhere between 'funny thing to play people at parties' and 'something I genuinely love', but I vacillate between the two states, so maybe this is Schroedinger's LP. This is truly one of the stupidest bands to ever get a major label release, and I include the Barenaked Ladies and Green Jellö in that list. But the Hamptons fit into some sort of vision I have about late 60s/early 70s freak music, even if the music isn't particularly visionary. I love the whole lore around this band - that it was somewhere between prog-leaning bar rock and and dadist art experiment, that members of the band would invite their friends up on stage to eat breakfast in their bathrobes during live gigs, and that the drawing of the military tank on the back cover is because they forgot to send any artwork for the back cover and it was just a drawing one of the band members had lying around. But the music is a pretty intense jam. I've worn out side 1, 'Halifax', where the band teaches us all about that Canadian city and establishes their formula: jammy blues-rock, occasionally prog-leaning, and with random nonsense sung over top. Bruce Hampton's pipes are great though, a regular Robert Plant, and his cry of 'Wouldn't you like to come to Halifax?" is an all-time great album opener. Fifteen minute later they are still at it, and there are passages of this song that are totally great. The fast boogie guitar solo about halfway through sounds a bit like the Italian prog band Area if you're reaching, and I think I just always wished this band was just a tad more in the cosmic direction. But 'Halifax' and 'Herndon' (side 4) are perfect, glorious kitchen sink rock jams, embracing the absurdity of the era and probably deconstructing something at the same time. 'Maria' opens side 2, with a much more overtly novelty-learning song, drenched in sexuality and coming off as the alpha-rock counterpoint to the Holy Modal Rounders' 'Griselda', though I think this predates it. And then it goes on and on through a variety of shorter songs, and it's a maddening experience. The sheer ambition and lack of editing here are remarkable but it becomes quickly impossible to sort out the diversions and jams. The resulting mess is a bit too close to Zappa/Mothers from the same era for my tastes, though I'd by lying if I didn't admit the teenage me loved 'Billy the Mountain'. Anyway, there's a LOT of Music to Eat, and side two starts to wear out its welcome. Side three is mostly dominated by the 18 minute suite 'Evans', but there's still room for another nearly 8 minutes of 'Lawton'. Jesus Christ, is this record long. I swear I have triple LPs that feel shorter - Armand Schaubroeck's first one, for example, or that Daphne Oram set. But the endurance test is part of the charm, if ya feel it; the Hampton Grease Band, if anything, are underrated. 'Evans' feels like a blizzard of guitar solos but then the track that follows it up, 'Lawton', is probably the musically most interesting part of the record - a dark, jammy psych instrumental that sounds like the Davis Redford Triad or some murky space-rock outfit from the late 90s, only this is '71. It all builds up to 'Herndon', where Hampton sings the label from a can of spray paint, before it segues into more nonsense. It becomes increasingly hard to pay attention by the end of this record, after one has been listening to it basically all night long. The fortitude is astounding for both self and the artists themselves. Discogs shows some odd post-Hampton Grease Band paths for them. One guitarist put out a solo 7" years later on Hib-Tone, the label famous for releasing R.E.M.'s 'Radio Free Europe' single; another played with Henry Kaiser in a band called Obsequious Cheesecake. As for Colonel Bruce Hampton himself, he seems to have enjoyed quite a long career in various projects I've never heard. This is the infamous record, and maybe part of its infamy is that it's not a slam-dunk - it's no Trout Mask Replica, but it really has some pretty good parts. I feel like I've written this much about Music to Eat now and come nowhere closer to solving my 'is it actually good or is it a party record?' dilemma. But obviously I don't throw parties anymore, anyway.

17 February 2017

Gunter Hampel and his Galaxie Dream Band - 'Broadway/Folksong' (Birth/Jubilee Edition)

Hampel had a productive summer in 1972; several of these 'Jubilee Editions' are recording sessions from that time, spent in New York obviously in collaboration with many American musicians. This is recorded in July, two months after Angel, and in a studio this time. It's mostly a different cast though John Shea and Jeanne Lee are still present, and there's no drumming this time. The compositions are more strongly felt - this is a heavily melodic album, built around plucked and bowed strings. 'Folksong' with flute and violin together, teasing each other towards a theme before the other musicians creep in. It finds a form, a circular, rolling melody, not extremely 'folk'-based to these ears but meant obviously as people's music. 'Broadway' is the main piece, split over two sides, which works in several movements of variously tight compositional form. There's two bassist, a cellist and violin to support the flutter treble core of Hampel & Lee. There's a feeling of Tin Pan Alley, with the basses working to keep the rhythmic centre, and I suppose the title comes from this throwback feeling. This isn't 'Oklahoma!' but unmistakably tied to jazz's past era, with bouncy swing moments and call and response themes coming and going. Just after side two starts, it shifts to the most formal melody yet heard on these Hampel records, and Lee is a delight here, whisking over it all like a tiny hummingbird trying to feed.