This page will serve as a place where we compile various reviews and other music writing that we publish around the interwebs, namely Decoder Magazine at this time. Links to the original posts are included.
25 Years of Idea Fire Company: An Interview with Scott Faust
As a writer, theorist, filmmaker, musician, label and mail order proprietor, Scott Foust has been a mainstay of the US Northeast’s fringe music community for well over three decades now. His music and writing convey an uncompromising, yet highly personalized vision, forging a singular body of work that cuts straight through any established “underground” or “avant” trends. Through a revolving membership and a back catalog that has explored cold electronic utterances to pristine minimalist compositions, Idea Fire Company (IFCO), Foust’s main musical outlet with his partner Karla Borecky, is now celebrating its 25th year of existence. With this, there has been a flurry of IFCO activity over the past several months, from reworked reissues (Postcards and Rags to Riches) to previously unreleased collaborations (The Terrible Salt Comet) to new tapes and albums looming on the immediate horizon — all of which indicates that IFCO has no plans of slowing down any time soon. I recently had a chance to catch up with Foust to discuss this recent activity and to look back on his decades of making music. [Read Full Interview at Decoder Magazine]
Sean McCann, "Music For Private Ensemble" (Recital)
The last time I checked in with Sean McCann was on the eve of his Vanity Fair album release, a collaborative outing with fellow LA-based musician Matthew Sullivan, marking the inaugural release of his Recital imprint. Around then, McCann indicated that he was moving away from doing cassettes toward recording more fully realized works on formats that were better suited to the sounds he’s after. McCann wasn’t kidding when he said this; he has virtually dropped out of the experimental tape scene altogether over the past few years. Perusing the Recital website, you get the sense that he has sought refuge and inspiration in the dusty corners of his local library and university archives, plucking out worn musical scores and neglected texts, while avoiding the glow and scroll of online cassette culture. McCann further expressed a desire to move away from creating music built on improvisation and synthesizers, focusing more on composition and the pure voicing of his instruments, namely violin. Here we are, a good year and a half since the release of Vanity Fair and over two years since The Capital, his last full-length solo effort, and we are given Music For Private Ensemble, where McCann emerges not only with a lucid expression of this new direction, but as a bona fide modern composer to be taken seriously.
To be clear, though, the component parts of Music For Private Ensemble are not altogether new, seen in the light of McCann’s back catalog. Heck, the massive string swells, speed variegated tape work, and odd time signatures of “An Unknown Gentleman” off of Vanity Fair provides the basic blueprint for Private Ensemble’s second side, even some of the more grand choral and orchestral gestures heard throughout the album appeared on several of The Capital’s tracks. What is noticeably different here, though, is the clarity, depth, and range of sounds employed: McCann reportedly multi-tracked upwards of 100 instrumental layers to achieve a full chamber orchestra sound, playing all of the instruments himself. And McCann, the conductor and orchestra of one, has arranged these sounds with a level of maturity and sophistication that is damn near peerless within the contemporary experimental underground.
“Introduction,” a three-part suite, launches Private Ensemble off into what feels like a series of false starts and tuning exercises, with drum rolls and string swells building tension and anticipation before a massive cymbal wash marks the transition into the somber string arrangements of “An Exchange of Courtesies I & II.” It’s here where you become acutely aware of the scope of McCann’s ambition as a composer, where you could easily envision this music wafting through grand concert halls or accompanying big-budget films. “Character Change” reinforces this notion with its layers of jaunty glockenspiel, flute flourishes, and ominous bassoon tones, highlighting McCann’s versatility and talents as an instrumentalist.
If the A-side leaves you wondering whether or not McCann has simply abandoned his roots and is heading towards the black-tie set, then the flip side will be a clear reminder that, while his overall sound is more overtly classical, his underlying avant tendencies remain intact. “City With All The Angles (for Dick Higgins)” features ornate orchestral elements overlying the moaning, groaning, sound-as-sound tape work strategies of his Fluxus forerunners. This odd, yet compelling, contrast in sound arrangement spills into the subsequent track “Our Days of Generosity Are Over,” gradually calming to the dream-like closer “Arden,” which features the airy, vocal drift of Kayla Cohen (a.k.a. Itasca).
Given the uncertainty of how long it will be before we hear from McCann again and whether Music For Private Ensemble could ever find its way out into the public in some live context, I can only offer that it’s worth your time to track down the deluxe edition of this album, which includes an additional forty-five minutes worth of material, offering another glimpse into what will surely be amongst the finest releases of the year. (Decoder Magazine)
Frozen Piss Sculptures, Lemon Coffee, and Yogurt Language: An Interview with Èlg
Following his 2008 release, Tout Ploie (Kraak/S-S Records), which featured a highly psychedelicized update on the French pop stylings of Serge Gainsbourg and Bridgette Fontaine & Areski, Èlg (a.k.a. Laurent Gerard) set off in a new direction. Informed by his work in Reines d’Angleterre and Opéra Mort with Ghedalia Tazartes and Jo Tanz, Gerard forged a unique sound built upon minimal electronic throbs, displaced field recordings, and mutant free-associative vocals. This new direction culminated in last year’s superb Mil Pluton (Alter and Hundebiss), while his recent album La Chimie (SDZ), which brings together a collection of tracks from mostly limited-run releases recorded between Tout Ploie and Mil Pluton, provides further evidence of Gerard’s strengths as a songwriter and creator of captivating, albeit somewhat unsettling, sound environments. We caught up with Gerard following a month-long tour of France to get a sense of where he is heading next. [Read Full Interview at Decoder Magazine]
Side-by-Side: The Latest Works of Cody Yantis
Colorado artist Cody Yantis has been developing a distinctive sort of primarily guitar-based composition over the past few years. His 2011 debut LP, Kerning (Blackest Rainbow), showed him exploring a more drone-centered take on Loren Connors-style guitar meditations, fleshing out his sound with subtle piano, banjo, and field recording embellishments. Since then, Yantis has gone on to release a string of solo cassettes that have featured blistering ambient noise (Box Elder, Cold Scholar), barebones electric guitar investigations (Strung Figments), and Arvo Pärt-like minimalist heft (American Surfaces). He has both extended and refined his sound further through recent collaborative outings as Saguache, his duo with Seth Chrisman, and as Tilth, his duo-cum-trio with Nathan McLaughlin and Joe Houpert. Central to all of Yantis’ work, though, is a sense of both place and space, what he describes as, “an idea of landscape as sound.” [Read full article at Decoder Magazine]
Rambutan, "Inverted Summer" (Fabrica Records)
For those immersed in the more experimental corners of the cassette underground, upstate New Yorker Eric Hardiman is likely a familiar name by now. For several years, he has been an active participant in various group projects, among them the scorching guitar-based bliss-outs of Century Plants and the subterranean heavy psych blowouts of Burnt Hills. Since 2008, Hardiman has also run one of the more aptly named imprints around in Tape Drift, issuing forth a steady stream of limited run CD-R, tape, and vinyl releases of his own work and from other like-minded artists, including Derek Rogers, M. Geddes Gengras, Lee Noble, Sparkling Wide Pressure, and many others. For those that follow music on this level, you know that it is a network built upon mutual support, genuine camaraderie, and pure enthusiasm. If you have had any interaction with Tape Drift whatsoever, you also know that Hardiman is the veritable goodwill ambassador of this scene, exuding the best in what DIY music is and ought to be about.
If you are still on the sidelines, though, what you really want and need to know about Hardiman is the solo work that he has created. In and around the time of Tape Drift’s inception, Hardiman began recording under the name Rambutan, and he has since gone on to release no less than thirty-five titles on virtually every microlabel worth its salt. As Rambutan, he has explored a multitude of sounds and styles using guitar, bass, synth, and an arsenal of electronics and effects. His releases have featured everything from long-form feedback drones (see 2008’s Rusted Prayers Converge) to mutant techno variations (2010’s The Temple of Echo) to bursts of playful electronic shenanigans (2011’s Partial Wires). Oftentimes these elements are melded together within an individual release and, occasionally, within individual tracks. For this, Hardiman has created a truly unique body of work, with some of his releases being notable exemplars within the contemporary cassette underground or, hell, the field of abstract music at large.
While I hold his previous output in high regard, Inverted Summer is undoubtedly Hardiman’s most definitive and convincing work to date as Rambutan. Marking his first full-length vinyl outing, the eight tracks spread across Inverted Summer are as direct and succinct as Hardiman ever has been, retaining, however, a certain degree of emotional depth and complexity that has not been nearly as palpable on prior efforts. Though it is not clear if Inverted Summer holds some unifying theme, there is a sense of loneliness laced with a misty-eyed optimism imbued in these tracks, but embedded within some sort of imagined, futuristic landscape. “Time Garden,” for example, pairs aqueous electronic textures with the sort of solar bound, melodic uplift that peers like Panabrite have been known to travel, though I’m guessing that vintage synth gear is hardly involved in this journey. Likewise, “Frozen Flowers” features fuzzy, heavily processed guitar notes that burst out of layers of darting electronics and stately ambient textures.
What makes Inverted Summer so engaging is that even at the most outré or alien sounding moments, Hardiman is able to craft something that never comes off less than being completely heartfelt and human, regardless of whether he is using layers of piano (“Flying Through Glass”), bass (“Shallow Motion”), or pure electronics (“Floodlights”). Simply put, Inverted Summer is proof positive of Hardiman’s talents; it is the type of ‘next level’ release that is deserving of a wider audience well beyond the corners of the cassette underground that he has proven himself in time and time again. (Decoder Magazine)
Èlg, "La Chimie" (SDZ Records)
Hearing Èlg’s music evolve over the past five or so years has been captivating; however, it has rarely been that easy to keeps tabs on. For starters, this Brussels-based, French artist also known as Laurent Gerard, works with great deliberation at a slower pace by today’s standards, both mainstream and underground. In an interview from earlier this year, Gerard mentioned a personal need to take breaks from music and to periodically re-immerse himself in silence, “the big silence that is so frightening but which also gives rise to so many wonderfully unexpected things. It’s a need to back off a bit so that I can experience the world better.” Given this approach, Èlg’s music often appears as if from nowhere. Another factor at play that might limit Gerard’s solo output but expand his breadth, is his involvement in other active projects, namely the abrasive electronic duo Opera Mort with Jo Tanz and the free-wheelin’ avant collage trio Reines D’Angleterre, also with Jo T. and the legendary French sound artist and autodidact, Ghédalia Tazartès. Add to the mix that much of the Èlg discography has come out in limited runs on micro-labels from far-and-wide and even the most devoted stateside listeners will be left Bingin’ their Googler trying to find his latest titles.
Based on Èlg’s two most widely available releases alone, though, one can make out the singular vision of this artist and the marked progression his music has taken. Tout Ploie, originally released on Belgium’s Kraak Records in 2008 and re-issued the following year in the States by S-S Records, found Èlg re-configuring the French ballad stylings of Serge Gainsbourg with elements of psych-folk, warped electronics, and a little “schizo sugar” to boot. A prime example of an album being far greater than the sum of its parts, Tout Ploie still stands as one of the best debut LP releases in recent memory. Last year’s Mil Pluton on Alter was no slouch, either. This outing saw Èlg plunge full-on into purely electronic and beat-oriented sounds, while stretching his use of voice to damn near hallucinatory effect. Though moody and darkly atmospheric, Mil Pluton still highlighted Èlg’s knack for crafting memorable songs. With its impressive, intricately detailed packaging, the first pressing of Mil Pluton disappeared in a hurry. Fortunately, Alter has just offered up a slightly modified, though equally fetching, second pressing of this fine release for new sets of ears.
SDZ Records has stepped up and provided a similar service with La Chimie, compiling a selection of tracks from previous limited run releases and one unreleased track to form an entirely new album. Much of this material would have been recorded during the same period that Mil Pluton was taking shape, so La Chimie serves as a natural follow-up or, perhaps, a natural supplement to that album. It was initially surprising to see that anyone would break up In Coro, Èlg’s 2012 tape on NO=FI from which several of La Chimie’s tracks are derived from, as this was, in my opinion, a solid, reissue-worthy release in its own right. That being said, La Chimie astutely brings together some of the best elements of that release and re-sequences it with the other material to create a listening experience that is more captivating and un-settling than that release proper. The catchy minimal, industrial throb in songs like “Der Prediger”, “Notringo Indigo”, and “Hoteru” rivals anything on Mil Pluton’s stellar A-side, while “De Salem”, on the other hand, unfolds like a demonic, soul-devouring take on James Blake’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, the jump-cut edits and Tazartès’ cues make for genuinely head-scratching moments, be it big boy sobs (“Vue Neon Dute”) or street side ad blurbage (“Good Service”). Like all Èlg releases, though, it is like walking into a hall of mirrors: it’s wildly entertaining, somewhat unsettling, and always transfixing. Get your ticket and enter while you can.
Loud & Sad, "Unknown Species (Greenup Industries)
While Nathan McLaughlin and Joe Houpert have been peppering the tape scene with noteworthy solo releases for the past few years, their long-running project Loud & Sad has felt like a sort of creative testing lab for the two musicians. This is the place that they seem to return to for new ideas and approaches; the place where they push one another as musicians. The duo’s early efforts, including their Whale Fall tape on Digitalis, showed them constructing the type of glistening long-form drones that would have sat nicely alongside the Students of Decay roster, or even Kranky’s line-up. Last year’s False Intimacy (Cae-sur-a) saw the duo still wrestling with ambience while moving towards a more gnarled form of piano and tape-based composition.
Unknown Species, their first vinyl release aside from the limited run 7″ lathes that they have put out on their own FET imprint, marks another leap forward for the duo. Here they show more of an interest in composing songs or, at the very least, pieces that feel song-like. As opposed to previous efforts that had lengthy, sidelong continuity, the seven tracks spread across Unknown Species are, of course, shorter, but they also feature distinct structural elements that offer a unique take on abstract song forms. This emphasis on song is further strengthened by the duo’s choice to include actual song titles on this release, as opposed to the sort of rigid numeric track indexing used on their previous solo and duo works. This is not to say that there was any effort spared on their part to provide context (see the liner notes to False Intimacy), it seems, however, that the duo has a desire to communicate something more personal this time around, as challenging as that can be in the field of abstract music.
The most noticeable advancement on Unknown Species, though, is the expanded sound palette that the duo employs. This is apparent right out of the gates with “Overture”, where squiggly, electronic sputterings are set against Houpert’s free jazz drumming eruptions, and it continues into the next piece, “Lomax Acid”, where McLaughlin’s close-to-traditional banjo stylings are gobbled-up in a blur of tape decay. His banjo playing appears on later tracks (“Thunderbird” & “Finale”), but it is layered and manipulated in such a way as to suggest a sort of impressionistic take on American folk music — an update, perhaps, on Henry Flynt’s Avant Garde Hillbilly strategies.
“Blind Date” is a re-worked and more concise rendering of a track they performed for an in-studio session awhile back. Built upon a simple, three-note guitar melody, it is perhaps the closest in line to their previous output until the tape loops build and burst forth into the duo’s most noise-leaning moments on the album. “Maple” follows suit in a comparable modern tape/noise approach to Louis and Bebe Barron’s early electronic sound environments.
One of the clear stand-out tracks on the record, though, has to be “Beth.” No, this is not an experimental take on that much-maligned Kiss ballad, but a graceful melodic song comprised of chiming guitar textures and wheezy reed tones. It brings the sort of simple beauty that both artists have been able to achieve in their solo works to a new level of clarity.
It will be interesting to see where McLaughlin and Houpert take Loud & Sad next, as they are currently involved in another cross-country collaboration with Cody Yantis known as Tilth. It seems, however, that given the long-standing connections between these two, they will continue to make time for this project: “apart but together” as the liner notes read. Until that time, there is plenty to savor in Unknown Species.
Heilo En Varsovia, "S/T" (Psychic Mule)
I’ve been holding out on reviewing this cassette from Madrid’s Heilo En Varsovia for a while now. To be honest, I was initially a bit turned off by all of the post-punk references I heard within this release. Hell, the band’s name alone translates to “Ice in Warsaw”, so right out of the gates you have to believe that this trio is trying to channel some serious Joy Division vibes. But after giving this tape multiple spins and a fair shake, I’ve come to hear a group that is on to something far more dark, complex, and epic than the vast majority of those derivative nth generation post-punk groups from circa-2002. On this U.S. debut release, Heilo En Varsovia arrive at an interesting cross-section of sounds that primarily balances dreamy, minimal wave synth pop with a darkened, post punk urgency. Gurgling vocals appear here-and-there, but are often buried in the mix, serving more to create added texture than to necessarily communicate anything directly. That being said, I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, which I assume is what language they’re singing in, so I could be completely off the mark. Scattered amongst this are a few extended, dirge-like instrumental passages that have a crushing weight to them. Taken as a whole, this self-titled release comes off as a murky, psychedelicized-take on post-punk, probably closer to something like Leaves Turn Inside You-era Unwound than anything from Joy Division, really. This tape release is in an edition of 100, each packaged in a hand-numbered cloth drawstring bag.
Midday Veil, "Integratron" (Translinguistic Other)
The name of this cassette is taken from the wooden dome built out in the Mojave Desert where Midday Veil recorded this release in. “An acoustic tabernacle and architectural energy machine”, the Integratron was said to be built with extra terrestrial guidance. Believe what you will, but the results of this tape confirm that Midday Veil was channeling something otherworldly within this “acoustically perfect sound chamber” on the day it was recorded. Like communal psych rock movers of yore, Midday Veil’s improvisations seem to unfold according to their own sense of rhythm and time. Slinky and slow motion, they are in no hurry to get where they are going; they know that, in the end, space is the place. It’s tom and cymbal brushes, synth and electronic gurgles, bass and baritone guitar, and wordless vocals that, at times, has a wandering blues feel to it, while others a more animated and explosive rock edge. It’s refreshing to hear synthesizers being used in this context and outside of what has become an over-populated genre (i.e. synth-based music) unto itself. For the opponents of the cassette’s sound fidelity: yes, you can quite clearly hear the ‘room sound’ within these recordings. Bathe in it . . .