Friday, December 31, 2010

War of Attrition on the Listener's Attention

As irresistible as list-making may be, it presents a problem that I've purchased precisely zero albums released within the last calendar year. I've been given quite a few records by friends, but I can't convince myself (let alone anyone else) that the best albums of 2010 happen to be by all my buddies' bands, whom you've never heard.

But I've not been incurious as a listener; I think I've explored a wider array of new sounds than I have in at least several years. It just so happens that almost none of this exploration has been contemporary - not that contemporary music has encouraged me to explore it much. (Seriously, with Best-Of lists like these, who needs Worst-Of lists?) Thanks to the Internet's obliteration of the over-/underground divide, even the most subterranean acts are tempted by the possibility of a pop crossover, implicitly depressing experimental daring.

The other problem posed by the Internet is what Patton Oswalt dubs "etewaf": Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever. New musicians must compete not only with each other, but with the sum-total of musical history which is now but a right-click away. Rather than liberating listeners from the dull hegemony of current trends, this suffocates them with option paralysis. From this, the modern audience appears to bifurcate into obedient contemporaneity on one hand, conservative retrovision on the other.

This presents career-minded musicians with three wholly unpleasant options:
  • Craft face-punchingly moronic Aspartame pop that seizes listeners within the first 30 seconds and fails to disappoint by going precisely nowhere.
  • Pattern your tunes after a tried-and-true template (be it Springsteen, Toni Basil, or Klaus Schulze) with plagiaristic fidelity.
  • Give up and enjoy your obscurity.
And the first two options all but guarantee music that is dogmatically diatonic, rhythmically regular, and grindingly dull.

Many would argue that the very curse of the internet is its blessing: everything that ever was - available forever! But, as Oswalt explains, "that creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists — just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?" Indeed, this is the fundamental problem of the digital environment in general, as Jodi Dean elaborates in her brilliant book, Blog Theory: authority tells the subject what to do, what to desire, how to structure its choices. Žižek argues, however, that in fact the result of the Master's decline is unbearable, suffocating closure. The online environment Second Life clearly demonstrates this closure: able to do or create anything (there aren't even laws of gravity), the majority of users end up with avatars that are sexier versions of themselves walking around shopping, gambling, fixing up their houses, and trying to meet people ("meet" can be read euphemistically here). It's not only boring - it's stifling as it confronts users with their lack of skills and imagination.
To be sure, there are those (myself included) to whom "etewaf" has been a boon. Anyone with a dram more discipline than the average subcultural tourist has access to whole goldmines that before were largely inaccessible by time, distance, and/or cost. Then again, we're the very people who, in Ye Olde Offline Times, had the curiosity & dedication to pursue our niche manias despite the prohibitions of time, distance, and/or cost.

As such, my chief means of musical exploration is the same now as fifteen years ago: talking with friends nerdier than myself. Ergo, to give credit where it's truly due, here are the top 5 influences upon my listening habits across 2010.

1. Watching Too Many Old Movies

As I mentioned a month ago, I was recently inducted into the gruesome world of giallo cinema. What's odd is the genre's initial appeal lies not in its cinematic strengths (which, depending on the film, are frequently few) but in its soundtracks. The friend who introduced me to gialli made no attempt to sell the genre on its Swiss-cheese screenwriting or Mexican soap-opera acting; instead, he pointed me towards the tonal warp of Bruno Nicolai's strings and the violent arrhythmia of Ennio Morricone's scores for Dario Argento.

If a score was particularly striking, I'd actually get around to watching the movie. Occasionally, the movie would exceed my (admittedly minimal) capacity for guts 'n' gore, which sent me in search of less graphic films of the same vintage. Spy thrillers fit this bill perfectly, from the cartoonish Danger: Diabolik to the more cultivated Harry Palmer trilogy. What these films held in common with the gialli is that the soundtracks often outstripped the films themselves in quality - especially John Barry's ominously exotic score for The IPCRESS File.

2. Co-Producing a Hip-Hop Album

The friend who introduced me to the giallo films had an ulterior interest in their obscure & outlandish scores: as a largely-untapped source of samples. For a couple of years, he's been quietly piecing together a hip-hop album that, even in its unfinished state, is more musically compelling than damn near any album since Fantastic Damage. I was flattered & a little intimidated when he asked me to help sculpt the record's sound, given that I'd yet to produce any hip-hop. This prompted me to research as much left-of-center hip-hop as I could handle, starting with prolific oddballs Madlib and his brother Michael "Oh No" Jackson. Though their total lack of self-editing makes for an uneven discography, I far prefer their analog grime to the slick digital minimalism that currently dominates mainstream hip-hop.

3. Talking To Other Bands On Tour

Obviously, what I've enjoyed the most about being back on the road is playing gigs. But it's also the perfect idiom to geek out as a listener - after all, what greater music nerds than musicians themselves? Our March tour with Lostage was especially enjoyable, whether it was comparing the spoils of some dedicated crate-digging (Karp for ¥300!) or turning each other on to unfamiliar acts. I'm especially grateful for the introduction to Z, whom I became immediately convinced are the best band in Japan.

4. Attending Salford University's Noise Conference

When in spring I blagged my way into an academic conference on "noise," it became suddenly incumbent that I know what I was talking about. I've never actually been a great fan of noise music: I usually find it either a pompous incursion into the "unintentional" soundworld, or just plain boring. But if I was going to participate in a 3-day conference on the subject, I'd better be on more intimate terms with it than merely having attended a My Bloody Valentine concert. Mercifully, I'd chose to focus primarily on the No Wave scene, whose "noise" was less noise outright and more about the expansive blurring of rock's outermost boundaries. This way, I got to listen to my Swans & Sonic Youth records on loop and legitimately call it "research."

The conference itself was every bit the brain-massage I'd hoped. Not only did everyone have something interesting to say, they were quite affable & easy-going. I was thrilled to have found a social milieu where the slurry pub talk would be about, say, the apparent dearth of right-wing prog rock. This niche of ne plus ultra nerdom also exposed me to musical cul-de-sacs of which I had no previous knowledge. Who knew that the Madchester sound owed its very existence to the early-'80s Sheffield scene, and why hadn't they told me before about long-forgotten visionary acts like Hula?

5. Not Being Sated By All the Above

Finally, the maniac's calling card is that there is never enough. Despite musical riches heaped upon my ears by the above experiences, I still craved more strange sounds, more uncharted territory, more unfamiliar artists - which is why I have to acknowledge a certain debt to the "etewaf" phenomenon. Between online retailers like the unequaled Aquarius Records and such appetent blogs as Son of Zamboni, Dayvan Zombear, and OngakuBaka, I became acquainted with countless enthralling artists I'd not yet had the pleasure of hearing: library funkmeister Janko Nilovic, space-rock svengali Walter Wegmüller, Ulaan Khol's rustic soundscapes, and (possibly my most oft-spun album of 2010) Getatchew Mekurya's barnburning collaboration with Dutch post-punks The Ex. I eagerly anticipate what exotic & intriguing sounds I'll be exposed to in the coming year.

And to you, I give a small cross-section of the fruits of the explorations detailed above. Click on the mix title to download, and all the best for 2011.

The War of Attrition On the Listener's Attention

1. John Barry - "Main Title" from The IPCRESS File OST
2. Tyler, the Creator - "French!"
3. Karp - "Forget the Minions"
4. Sonic Youth - "Major Label Chicken Feed"
5. Hula - "Red Mirror"
6. Ennio Morricone - "Trafelato" from Giornata Nera Per l'Ariete OST
7. Walter Wegmüller - "Der Wagen"
8. Getatchew Mekurya & the Ex - "Ethiopia Hagere"
9. Oh No - "Smoky Winds"
10. Z - "新今日"

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Connection to the Second Resurrection

Two years ago, I sat in our emptied Hamburg apartment, wiling away a few idle hours before our red-eye flight to Baltimore. Feeling productive but a bit blighted for inspiration, I hammered out what could be charitably considered a seasonal cover version of the Brian Jonestown Massacre classic, "Jesus". I posted it on this blog, but that link has long since gone dead and I've now gotten hip to this "streaming" business, so I present my meager gift to you...

Jesus by Seb Roberts

Happy holidays, whatever your spiritual proclivities may be. I shall return with more shortly.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Defined As Disorientation Or a Change of Scenery

Well, I've made good on my promise to crank out that "sketchbook of improvised production exercises." Upon hearing it, my bandmates joked that I need to start grading my records - Rogues Gallery for beginners, Dépaysement for experts - lest some guileless listener looking for Shellac-like sturm und drang get stuck with an album of swampy, tuneless arrhythmia.

Not that the new album is impossibly uneasy listening; I haven't broken any rules left intact by either Brian Eno or the past generation of post-rockers. But Dépaysement would upset anyone looking for the relative concision & geometric construction of my last couple o' albums. On the other hand, the miasmic feedback & undulating drones provide the perfect soundtrack to that long dusky drive, jetlag-enabled insomnia, or snowbound solitude many of us face in the coming weeks.

And with that, I'll catch you all on the other side my own long-haul holiday transition. Pray the TSA doesn't take a dislike to my bearded countenance.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Invasion and Occupation of the Ears

As I explained in my last post, the late fall frequently finds me seeking a little distance from the outside world. While this is usually accomplished by adopting a new hobby or subcultural fascination, I just as often self-impose arbitrary & unrealistic deadlines for mammoth projects - as though Death's icy grip will close faster around my throat if I don't release two albums and a 7" by New Year's Eve. Perhaps I'm terrified of being without braggable exploits during the inevitable holiday reunions with old acquaintances. On the other hand, if I manage total consistency for another decade, what is underwhelming now will have become gloriously eccentric: an artsy polymath circa 30, without a stable income since his early twenties, is just some pseudo-bohemian loser - but when you're knocking on 40's door, dude, you're Daniel Higgs.

I digress. The point is that, several months ago, I sat down and assigned myself several large projects with little chance they'd all be completed by the late-December cutoff. What's amazing is that I might actually succeed.
  • After intermittent recording over the autumn, my band finally completed an album's worth of demos, from which we selected a well-matched pair of songs for a quick 'n' gritty 7" single; I placed the order with the pressing plant yesterday, in time to get the test pressings back before Christmas.
  • What started as a sonic sketchbook of improvised production exercises somehow coalesced into an album. I should have it pressed up in time for a run of shows coming next week, though I'm not sure if a bunch of post-hardcore kids & aging alts will be very interested in my bogus Frippery. Maybe Kranky will release it and I can start doing improv gigs with Fennesz.
  • Meanwhile, I overstepped my musical bounds by several strides and decided to *ahem* make beats. This was largely out of frustration with the likes of Doom, Madlib, and Oh No, whose releases are maddeningly half-brilliant, half-baked. Instead of groaning when a banger like "Gazillion Ear" is followed up by filler like "Ballskin", why not just stitch together a solid 30 minutes of samples that I already like?
Only that last project is unlikely to see light before year's end, but at least sample-splicing and beat-tweaking will keep me busy during the dull moments of the holiday season.

Consequently, my ears have been worked into callused stumps. Demo recording was especially exciting and excrutiating: what could've been a no-frills rehearsal recording ballooned into a kitchen-sink production exercise. I suspect this was because our bassist (the veteran of the band) was "auditioning" me to engineer our album when we record in earnest next year; more likely, though, no one had a clue what "our sound" is. ("This song is kinda PiL-ish, but that song should sound like a track from Goo.") To accomodate diverse stylistic demands, from song to song I aped different engineer's signature styles - some Alan Moulder here, a dash of Andy Johns there, and more than a little Steve Albini throughout. This was made difficult by a paltry selection of microphones and a limited number of inputs. Alone, either one of these doesn't hopelessly hamstring a recording. After all, The Beatles & George Martin were able to craft Sgt. Pepper's on four tracks - but they had several-thousand-dollar microphones and outboard gear almost worth killing for. Conversely, Slayer's epic Reign In Blood was recorded almost entirely with cheap, small-diaphragm dynamic mics - but with 24 tracks all blazing at once. I, on the other hand, was trying to siphon torrents of sound through a bunch of Beta-57s into 8 tracks - not quite as difficult as trying to part the Red Sea with a teaspoon & a paper fan, but almost.

Excuses aside, everyone was (mercifully) pleased with the results.

As maddening as handicapped recording sessions can be, they stage incredible games of mental chess. Technical limitations force ingenuity, while inspiring "what if?" scenarios for the next step. For example, now that I've managed to achieve a decent three-mic drum sound, will I record the drums differently when I have 16 simultaneous inputs available? Would an ORTF stereo pair or an M-S setup sound better in this room? Why not run the bass through a Marshall and the guitar through an Ampeg?

The process provoked me to revisit my old recording textbooks, not to mention it's given me renewed concentration as a music listener. Studying every whisper & crash that comes out of my speakers has reminded me of the oft-forgotten distinction between engineering and production: engineering is material, the nuts-'n'-bolts mechanical documentation of a sound, whereas production is metaphysical, the sculpture of music's intangible qualities. The two are commonly confused, if only because it's tempting to assign why music moves us emotionally to its material qualities.

Take Steely Dan, a band renowned for their meticulously-constructed records which sound as clear & smooth as a fine Scotch. I've always found them too clinical, distant, dull. Presumably, Becker & Fagen don't mean their music to have all the vitality of a dead sturgeon, so as productions, are they failures?

Meanwhile, there's plenty of deliberately ugly music out there - from black metal's treble-heavy buzz to the speaker-exploding grit of Brainbombs or the Psychic Paramount. While such records are ostensibly examples of "bad recording," it's obvious that these acts want to sound repellent, and their audial odiousness is the very reason why some listeners love them and others loathe them. Thus, as productions, does such music succeed even when repulsing a portion of its audience?

(Image from
Clearly, cleaving between engineering & production is so difficult because the two are entwined, each serving to support or spoil the other. Those krautrock classics by Neu, Kraftwerk, and Ashra inspire visions of a futurist technotopia so effortlessly because of their painstaking, state-of-the-art construction. Likewise, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut remains a touchstone of rough, streetwise hip-hop because it sounds rougher than a spiked bat.

Ah, but what's missing from the equation? The performance, the very thing being documented. A good performance is immediate & unmistakable; it almost requires concerted effort to record a strong performer so badly that no one would listen to it. The engineer's job is to prepare the physical environment & tools necessary to capture a good performance, whereas the producer's job is to enable a good performance. The producer is the architect of the soundworld in which the performer will be most at home. This may sounds nebulous & variegated, because it is, which is why no two producers work in precisely the same fashion. Many performers produce themselves, feeling (sometimes erroneously) that outside influence only interferes. Some producers are technical taskmasters, detail-oriented drill sergeants; others, like Rick Rubin, are closer to "life coaches," therapist-cum-sycophants who coax & cajole performers into their comfort zone. Arguably the most interesting are those producers who purposefully antagonize & nettle the performers, aware that certain artists thrive on adversity & discomfort.

So with everything that goes into a recording, it's galling that there are musicians who I don't feel have ever been produced perfectly. I don't necessarily mean "recorded badly" in that it sounds like a shit-caked dictaphone, but rather the artist was framed in a soundworld where they were not at home. As much as I adore Bowie's Berlin trilogy, those albums have always sounded a bit flat & musty, like old cardboard, as though the whole band was crammed into a single three-meter-wide, drywalled room. Station To Station is much more effectively layered in its arrangements, though musically it's nowhere near as coherent or compelling. I've also never been entirely satisfied with how The Fall or Sonic Youth have been recorded. They each came close to finding their pitch-perfect space for a single album in the '80s (The Wonderful and Frightening World and EVOL respectively), but sadly got lost again afterward. When they finally arrived (Fall Heads Roll and Washing Machine), their most striking innovations were long behind them.

At any rate, below is a mix of songs that, to me, strike the perfect balance between a strong performance and engineering that serves to create a distinctive, vivid soundworld.

Master Sculptors

1. Brian Eno - "Sky Saw"
2. Ashra - "77 Slightly Delayed"
3. D'Angelo - "Playa Playa"
4. Can - "Oh Yeah"
5. Wu-Tang Clan - "Bring Da Ruckus"
6. Nino Rota - "O Venezia, Venega, Venusia"
7. Bachi Da Pietra - "Altri Guasti"
8. The Jesus Lizard - "Seasick"
9. Scott Walker - "Clara"
10. My Bloody Valentine - "Come In Alone"

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Invasion and Occupation of the Eyes

Oh, hello, December! What's happening? A lot, it seems. Living away from America, I hope Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Kanyemaggedon will forgive my failed attention. I doubt such foggy disinterest would be excused by the swarming ragazzi of the biggest student revolt since '68 - believe me, lads, I'm with you but allow yourself a fleeting, sunny moment of feeling not oppressed and check what your comrades across the pond are paying for their diplomas. Oh, and the latest WikiLeaks Deep Horizon impersonation a la classe diplomatique? I could outshrug James Dean. Let's not be so naïve or obtuse to pretend that politics is anything other than Heathers with heavier weaponry. Speaking of which, if anything should've roused my rancor and set my keyboard aflame, it was last week's bitchfight on the Korean peninsula. At the time, I plucked out a paltry paragraph 'n' a half (since pruned & posted) before returning to more immediately pressing matters. (Hey, if Kim Jong-Il hucks a scud at Roppongi Hills, ain't shit I can do about it. Then again, I wouldn't particularly mind if Roppongi was wiped off the map...)

Somewhere amidst the carnivaliance of Halloween, the apocalyptic blue-balls of American mid-term elections, and the first flurry of year-end retrospectives, my mood cools quicker than the weather. The hysteric tenor and short-frame nostalgia of late fall usually encourages me to close the blinds and batten the hatches until familial obligation bunker-busts my castle of quiet. To justify my withdrawal, I'll usually find some arcane cultural pocket I've yet to explore, and dive in with all the fervor of the newly converted. Two years ago, it was The Prisoner. This year, it's been '60s and '70s thrillers - particularly Italy's infamous proto-slasher mystical murder mysteries. I was nudged towards the giallo genre merely by how bad-ass so many of the soundtracks are. As a good friend & certified giallo junkie argued, Morricone, Piccioni, and Nicolai would likely have been happy composing spaghetti twang & crushed velvet lounge until they kicked their respective buckets. But musically ventriloquising blood-lusty Freudian train-wrecks thrust the composers into savage, alien territory from which almost all contemporary films scores have meekly retreated.

By the way, when I say "train-wrecks," I'm speaking of the general emotional state of gialli characters - but fuck it, I could just as easily be talking about the acting, writing, or editing in many instances. As much as they contributed to film's stylistic lexicon, Mario Bava and Dario Argento's work is more uneven than a Himalayan driveway. Argento appears especially half-talented: his stories piece together with all the finesse & balance of Ikea furniture minus the instructions, and he often cast actors that make the "Garbage day!" guy look like Al Pacino.

But I confess to being a timid tourist within giallo flicks. My tolerance for torture & gore doesn't extend much beyond the Resevoir Dogs "ear scene," so a great many movies by Bava, Fulci, et al. fall far outside my ken. Besides, I'd be slightly concerned if my wife felt Twitch of the Death Nerve was appropriate nightcap viewing. Capers & whodunnits are more our mutual speed. We recently revisited the spy-thriller trilogy that made Michael Caine's career: The IPCRESS File, Funeral In Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain. I had some misty memory of that last movie from my distant youth, but again, I was shoved towards the movies by a fantastic soundtrack. John Barry's IPCRESS score isn't nearly as iconic as his 007 theme, but the musical contrasts perfectly articulate the discrepancies between James Bond and Harry Palmer: the former is obvious, brassy, crowd-pleasing bombast, while the latter is more clever, subtly variegated, and heavily shaded.

The real fun of old films, of course, is picking apart the archaic behavior & periodic fascinations contained therein. Sub- and paratextual deconstruction is obviously not restricted to artifacts: I'm as curious as anyone if the contemporary "Never Say No to Panda" ads purposefully describe an atmosphere of coercion & violent retribution under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But movies are marvelous time capsules for those of us born too late: whereas American slasher flicks of the '80s enacted vengeance upon sex-&-drugs dissolution, the giallo films of the '60s and '70s explored the terrifying conjunction of sex and violence. (Meanwhile, both subgenres frame female sexuality in a questionable, threatening way.) The Harry Palmer trilogy is likewise a fascinating glimpse into England's reluctant, conflicted position within the Cold War, particularly Billion Dollar Brain: the dry, skeptical Brit protagonist is sandwiched between duplicitous, smug Eastern Bloc authoritarians and the (ostensibly worse) Americans, who are either criminal opportunists or messianic madmen driven towards Wagnerian confrontation.

However, what I enjoyed the most was the nagging requisition of the British bureaucracy upon Palmer & his MI5 cohorts. As much as they grumble about the imposition posed by their paperwork, the steadfast observance of protocol appears the only safe route between the militarist East and the wild, wild West.