Wednesday, February 25, 2009
I have been walking down some interesting musical paths these last few years, mostly following the breadcrumbs of Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, across the street to Can and Faust, and all the way, up ahead, on the horizon, I can see the red blaze of an ascending prog-rock sun. My 80s' punk rock instincts kick in and without thinking I shade my eyes. But like any good cultural mystic, I decide to gaze straight into the star and see how long I can take it.
There are a few acts I could never take quite seriously, like Genesis and (I'm sorry to some of my dear friends) Rush*. But there has always been a soft spot in my heart for some of the precursors to the mainstream prog acts. King Crimson, ELO, the Moody Blues, and even some of the more satyr-ific moments of Jethro Tull have remained a secret joy for me. And then just last month two things happened almost simultaneously. I heard Roy Harper's StormCock for the first time, and then I chanced upon Ilk.
Ilk is one of the many incarnations of the experimental musician Andew Paine and underground artist Richard Youngs, (whose recordings with Jagjaguar are astonishingly powerful). I didn't know that he was involved with other outfits, but thanks to a small review in The Wire, I discovered the CD-R recording by Ilk, Language of the Court. And now I am happy also to have made the acqaintance of Paine, who by all accounts is not only an incredible musician, but a gentlemen as well.
Ilk is progressive rock when stripped of its pretense and its bombast, uncovering the human element that infuses the best of the genre. It's not without artfulness, but where much of the late 70s prog musicians favored technique and fiction, Ilk goes back to the folk roots. But rather than taking a romp through the woodlands, Ilk hooks them up to a Tesla coil. It's like the difference between a Grimm's fairy tale and a Disney version of the same. The former isn't afraid of the mud and the fecundity, the violence and the dread; the human. The latter adds sugary sweet songs and de-sexualized caricatures of what had been rich archetypes.
While Roy Harper offers an unplugged acoustic vision of this denuded form of prog, Ilk starts at the top with all the electricity and the echoes, but has removed those things that get in way of real emotion. If Harper and Ilk met in the middle, you would have best of the early King Crimson recordings. By themselves, they each remind us what is so compelling about rock and roll that aims for the stratosphere, and once in a while for the stars.
If Ilk are cosmic, it's only because they sometimes sound like a microphone aimed at the center of a nebula, full of radio noise and wonder. Language of the Court is a mesmerizing experience. There is a bit of jangly guitar strum on the first track that leaves me breathless and the song "Again Recurring" is one of those late night tracks to play over and over.
I'm not sure how many copies of this are available, but if you want to be reminded of how even the fuzziest rock can inspire spiritual introspection, try to get a hold of this.
-Ilk: Salutation of the Elders
*Truth be told, Farewell to Kings had a huge impact on me (science fiction and mysticism!) but I was turned off by Rush's later stuff and I think I retroactively stopped liking even that album. I think it deserves it going back and giving it another listen.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I normally wouldn't highlight a recording that is difficult to find, or limited, but I just love this stuff so much, I had to at least post a few words. The Blithe Sons is made up of two highly regarded psychedelic/folk musicians--Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson. Chasse is best know for his work in the band Thuja, and Donaldson has garnered some decent attention with Skygreen Leopards. Together they are the driving force behind the Jewelled Antler Collective, a loose conglomeration of musicians, recording mainly on hard to find small run CDRs. (A wonderful boxed set of some of the better JAC offerings is out now, although the price point is a bit steep for 4cds.)
But this Blithe Sons recording demonstrates the most human elements of the underground folk movement, and it offers the least contrived and most authentic strains of psychedelic tropes. Psychedelic folk is often guilty of too much Woden-on-the-brain, or in an attempt to subvert the expectations, their is often too much reliance on noise and drone. Sometimes this is done to beautiful effect, but psychedelic music is easily reduced to a kind of tonal solopsism. But when psych-folk is successful it reaches out beyond its own inner world and tells a story. It might still be extremely subjective, but if it is honest, then the details don't matter, only the feeling needs to catch you off guard and remind you of something, even if the actual event or feeling eludes you.
--Try to Find a Memory in a Dark Room (excerpt)
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Every now and again drone is used as the means to end, rather than the end in itself. This is an important distinction particularly during a time when drone is the guiding principal in so much experimental music. I am reminded of a band like Growing, who despite having shared philosophical roots and a shared audience with doom and stoner metal, their use of drone relies on what it makes possible rather than what it takes away.
And now there is Mountains, with their new album Choral coming out this month from Thrill Jockey. I am going to take a chance here and say that I think it will be difficult to think about drone in the same way once this record gets its proper reception.
On Choral, there is a lesson that when reduced to it's almost primal elements, pop music is still only made up the fundamentals. And when you begin to take them apart, as I think Tape also does to great effect in their recent album, you are forced to have to listen in a new way. Most people don't want to. It requires work. It means having to be willing to wait, sometimes for a long time, for any kind of illumination. What Mountains offer a sure path by demanding that at intervals, you slow down and listen carefully to what may or may not be coming next. But this is what makes something like Mountains' new album so exciting. It doesn't condesend with a kind of drone or noise that refuses to teach.
In the titular song "Choral," for example there is a subtle, yet exteremly detailed enviroment of sound, but if you don't wait for it, or if you dismiss the flourishes as merely artifacts of the drone, then this isn't the album for you.
I have been struck lately about how many new releases are taking this kind of risk to build upon drone, but often the results are mere noodling about with sqeaks and squaks with the ubiquitious homebuilt oscillator, than any kind of crafted layering. Mountains takes you along the drone and points out all the beauty along the way.
Some of the songs use beautiful guitar picking and strumming to set the stage and then return to the central musical themes of the album. This, too, feels like an important risk, because sometimes we need to be reminded of melody, that this is an essential element as well. But then the guitar will slowly get washed away by fuzz and Mountains drift off again into the timelessness of the drone in a way that again, forces concentration.
We often think of meditation as a passive state, but it actually is a strange mix of concentration and letting go. We have to push ourselves towards the emptiness, and then not get attached once we are there. It's something special when music offers us the same opportunity.
Monday, February 9, 2009
I recenlty posted on Tape, where I referred to their music as "that long range telescopic, pin-hole view of the depths of being, colored by small points of longing, and something that sounds like love." I have finally been able to give the whole album a listen. My wife and I played it late one night in bed, lights off, in repose.
Most of the pieces are guided by a simple acoustic guitar. The other sounds and instruments don't so much build on it as function as emanations of a sort. They only exist because of the primary structure. They draw their meaning from the guitar, and then provide new layers of insight. But they never get mistaken for the actual thing itself. There are a few tracks that offer surprises of the sort that you feel as though you just stumbled upon the answer to some secret. But then it fades away. There is a feeling of loneliness at times, but it is pinned down by immense hope.
Tape has a nostalgia for pop, but instead of crafting a pop song, they draw from pop just enough nutrients to keep it all aloft. The third track "Fingers," feels like a deconstruction of a pop song that is at times quite disconcerting. But overall, the buzz of the electronics actually crack open the songs and reveal the yolk, where the real proteins are found.
Simply put, one of the best albums so far this year, and close to perfect in terms of craftsmanship, heart, and the thing that makes this kind of music so important: the possibility that sound can actually shape consciousness.
(Thanks again to Raven Sings the Blues for turning me on to this.)
Tape-- Moth Wings
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
This is the first of a regular posting on experimental, ambient, and psychedelic music, particularly as these genres of music relate to ideas about consciousness and mysticism. But it's mainly a place to discover and explore some of the lesser known musicians that are crafting sublime and powerful sounds.
This first installment is a listen to some beautiful, yet extremely challenging music from the album Kristallivirta by Aan Meets Eyes Like Saucers. This group is made up of a number of musician including Jeffrey Knoch, a keyboard player whose solo outfit is Eyes Like Saucers, and Jani Hirvonen and Jari Koho who play together as Aan. I believe this music serves as an important entry into this blog.
There is a tendency in many contemporary ambient/noise/drone bands to create landscapes of decay and loops of circuit bending that suggest entropy. It's easy to follow a path of hopelessness into the the woods. But hopelessness isn't the same as melancholy or pathos, which despite the darkness, still recognizes that shadows require light.
Aan Meets Eyes Like Saucers goes in the opposite direction of many of their peers; here the chaos expands into form. It sounds like the echo of creation, formlessness becoming form, darkness becoming light. What sounds like decay is really the moment before unification, as matter finds it ways into some kind of cohesiveness.
We often think of expanding consciousness as a moment whereby self becomes formless, but this has reduced much of the discussion around ideas of consciousness as a dichotomy between the material world of form and the nouminal or spiritual as formless. But what if we imagine that the Godhead is really the realization of all things, not the dissolution of matter, but the perfect union of all things. Creation is God's own beginning.
Aan Meets Eyes Like Saucers offers an possibility that the this kind of music does not always have to point to the dissolution of things, but rather to the beginnings of sound, where what is initially perceived as the staticky echo of nothingness is really the move towards the plenum, the fullness of creation.
--Aan Meets Eyes Like Saucers--