Each and every week, Scene Point Blank receives hundreds (and hundreds) of submissions for possible coverage. Some of these are really cool (Beck’s collaboration with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab), some of them are kind of odd (a one man metal group from Zimbabwe offering up covers of Haddaway’s “What is Love” and Toto’s “Africa”), but many of them are just simply off the beaten path in terms of what we typically cover onsite in our news, premieres, or reviews.
In my experience, it’s quite rewarding to travel outside of one’s comfort zone, to delve into the vast array of creativity that is out there. My goal with this column is to survey some of the other music releases that are out there. Hopefully, you’ll find something here that piques your interest. Maybe be inspired to give something you might not have had any inclination to listen to a shot.
Matthew Serra / WET MATH
Starting off, I thought I’d give a listen to the new project from Matthew Serra, whose previous work under the name Monecho I found to be pretty outstanding. WET MATH takes things in a different direction. Echoes begins with -- shocker -- echoing vocals over airy electronic tones. It’s warm and inviting, seeming like a perfect summer soundtrack, alternating between more straightforward sections and more glitch-oriented ones. Unsurprisingly given Serra’s background, this seems much more polished and obviously musical than the average electronic producer making home recordings. The album’s three tracks seem like a continuous work, with the middle piece playing around with the opener’s main themes and the closer being more spacey and introspective.
Commando Vanessa. It sounds like it could be a pretty rad Saturday morning cartoon. Do they even have those anymore? It’s also a pretty rad record label from Italy that specializes in experimental releases. John Poubelle’s Pléistocène supérieur tags itself as “fragile punk of the subsoil” and reinterpreted sacred music. I can see that. It strikes me as religious music that’s not universally cheerful and upbeat, reflecting the weird portions of the Bible. With lurching electronic elements, haunting and sometimes screamed vocals, it creates an unsettling mood that kind of reminds me of the creepiness of certain tracks from German Shepherds that have a, I don’t know, basis in religious themes. Following a ghostly but comparatively serene moment, the album will nail you with an eruption of grating noise or make your skin crawl with an unnerving drone piece. You think you’re getting one thing with some of these tracks, and wind up with something else entirely. A few years back, I reviewed an album of improvised church organ music. Pléistocène supérieur seems like that album left behind in a decaying factory and having sprouted lizard eyes. The reverent sounds are present, but the album has evolved into something a little menacing. Dangerous even. Case in point: “Poison,” which sounds like a field recording of a tormented soul in purgatory, or “Soldo Degli Angeli,” which may as well be an outtake from John Carpenter’s Halloween soundtrack.
Electro-punk group CLT DRP (“it’s pronounced clit drip,” as vocalist Annie Dorrett confirms in the intro track) has a sound and lyrical content that is aggressive, kind of wonky, and purposely unsettling and confrontational. Still, it’s really the album art for their debut album, Without the Eyes, that struck me; it makes me uncomfortable in the same way that the artwork for Chris Cunningham’s (caution on the link: this is some weird shit) Rubber Johnny did. Perhaps equally likely to inspire pearl-clutching in terms of band names is Reno, Nevada’s Merkin. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that I knew what the name referred to beforehand. One of Merkin’s press quotes on their website is: “What the fuck was that? it works!” Accurate. There’s so many odd choices going on in the band’s songs, from guitar solos that are included seemingly for no other reason than why not? to jagged stanzas in the lyrics and chorus lines. It often seems like the singer is trying too hard, seems like maybe a Tony Clifton thing. Combine these offbeat song elements with the rough recording, and it just seems like this band is out to simply have fun making music, whether anyone else digs it or not. The band’s cover of the Sinatra standard “My Way,” for instance, plays like a hot mess. Sid Vicious ain’t got nothing on this. About five different songs colliding together in one track. Are there dogs singing along at one point? Cookie Monster? More random guitar solos? This music is a lot of things. Uninteresting isn’t one of them.
Master Boot Record
It’s always struck me as kind of strange that, despite my love of NES games and music, chiptune as a genre rarely seems to do it for me. Let’s face it, the NES music composers were super talented. They didn’t have the resources and capability to make “bigger,” so they had to focus on great tunes and harmonies. Average musicians playing around with 8-bit sound? Not so much most of the time. It seems, though, that combining chiptune elements with other genres sometimes can lead to good results. Enter the chiptune metal of Master Boot Record and their Floppy Disk Overdrive. Track names apparently designed to confuse a computer. Serious commitment on the part of the group: their Bandcamp descriptions are strings of numbers. In terms of the music, we’re in Castlevania territory. If the NES could’ve handled it, some of these tracks would've exceedingly well. Skillfully alternates between gloomy electronic sections and warp speed thrash, perhaps nowhere better than on “DISPLAY.SYS” which starts off with chilling synthesized organ. And that mid-track breakdown in “CHKDSK.EXE?” Pretty sweet.
Being a fan of 1970s genre films, I was particularly enamored with the likes of The Freakmaker or Bug that featured avant garde electronic music on their soundtracks. Brett Naucke’s EMS Hallucinations, recorded on vintage synth equipment at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion, recalls the soundtrack work of composers like Basil Kirchin and Charles Fox on the aforementioned films. I could almost invent a story based on Naucke’s music: we go from bubbling test tubes and beakers in a dank lab to a frantic pursuit across a bombed-out landscape. Meanwhile, a predator methodically stalks the city streets, staying just far enough in the dimly-lit alleyways to avoid detection. Logic? Who needs it. Jess Franco territory, here we come! Instead of being broken down into smaller parts, the two main tracks are an often playful 16-plus minutes a piece, flowing from one motif to the next. It’s fun to pick out recognizable sound elements of yesteryear in this mix. Some of the arpeggios on this atmospheric, gloriously retro album are very familiar.
I found myself pondering the other day what makes a good ambient or drone album. It seems very subjective, and what really would make one definitively better than another? About 50-50 in terms of what I might describe as being dark ambient, Michael Vallera’s Denovali Records release Window In initially conjures up imagery of a hanging fog. I’m reminded of the original Silent Hill game; first track just needs grunting or groaning creature noises – those damn baboons - every now and then. It kind of sounds like a bad thing, but I bet this would be a nice album to fall asleep to. Hell, second track title is “Deep Sleeping Exit,” something I’d like to have most nights. Very pensive and calm. It’s kind of amazing how this track in particular doesn’t really seem like it changes at all while you’re listening to it, but the sounds at the end are nothing at all like those at the beginning. Gurgling noise elements lurking just within threshold of being heard. The title track is very airy and dreamy, while the finale’s high frequency tone outbursts are jarring compared with everything previous. Albums like this really make you think about exactly what it is you’re hearing. Like what is that intermittent clacking echo? The muffled thumping? The pulsing noise elements that sometimes almost sound like a distant car alarm going off? Maybe that’s what makes a good ambient album, one that seems like it’s not doing much but actually has a pretty fascinating level of sound design going on.
Another Denovali offering, Asfast’s The Prime Same, certainly falls into the dark ambient category, with a fair dose of weird electro thrown in to boot. Lots of glitchy elements going on here. Am I hearing EVP lurking around in the audio mix? The shrieking high-pitched tones definitely suggest something otherworldly and the ominous sonic backdrop suggests something sinister is afoot. And now I find myself in a shrouded swamp bog in the middle of the night. Toss in a few jump scare moments and this would make a great horror movie soundtrack replete with eerie bell tones, muffled shuddering, and dashes of almost unrecognizable choir music. I’m not sure how I feel about the penultimate track, the only one with traditional vocals. They’re almost too theatrical for my tastes, but they certainly do convey a gothy sort of feel.
Being a fan of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis more so than ‘Round About Midnight, I’ve always found it fascinating to see what jazz musicians come up with when allowed to experiment. In the case of German jazz pianist Philipp Rumsch’s µ: of anxiety x discernment, we have 10 tracks dedicated to exploring the idea of anxiety using a wide variety of sonic elements. I’ve rarely heard this amount of Auto-Tune outside of pop music. A sense of nervousness pervades much of the album, with an opener that slowly ramps up the intensity until uneasy human respiration is heard at the end. At times lonely, the album also coalesces into some heavy grooves (the post-rock jam at the climax of tense slow-burner “d3” is fantastic) and reaches crescendos of cacophony, even breaking out into synthy electro pop complete with bright digitized vocals on its third track and delivering a track later on that plays like an expressive rock number. One aspect of the album that really stood out to me was the use of sound effects and dynamic mixing. While listening with headphones, I had to look around several times to make sure the unusual sounds I was hearing weren’t coming from my physical surroundings. I found this compared well to one of my favorites, the chamber music group Rachel’s.
The Avondale Addition by Chicago jazz trio Stirrup plus six other players (hence, Stirrup +6) starts off with an audio recreation of what happens in my gut if I eat something that doesn’t agree with me. Almost flatulent lower register tones alongside creaky strings. It churns, it belches. Ever so slowly, horns and strings start to push the track towards something more concrete...and voila, we’re in a smoke-filled coffee house with the hottest act in town onstage. I expect Walter Paisley to enter at any moment with one of his new “sculptures.” Improvised and recorded live, it’s impressive how well everything comes together and progresses, with its combinations of slithering woodwinds, cool as a cucumber bass, Lost Highway sax freakouts, and pleasant melodies. “Rodney’s Last Ride” showcases both toe-tapping grooves and more expressive approach, with the electric guitar threatening to take things in a more psychedelic direction. Despite its oddball opening, I’d call this a pretty straightforward album. Maybe not quite my preference, but it’s hard to argue with solid performances.
If The Avondale Addition is the beat scene sort of jazz, Popebama’s somewhat jazz-oriented Nation Building seems like the music accompaniment to a particularly bizarre cartoon. What Oskar Fischinger could do with this. I can almost picture various characters or objects interacting to the rhythm, or more often, utter randomness that’s heard on this record. Sound effect percussion, muffled voices, scat singing, nonsense verse, and rapid-fire chattering. Random techno briefly intrudes alongside new age keyboards. Most of the sonic elements seem to be reacting to other sounds and the stop-start seems to be the point. Maybe this is the audio representation of a rapidly expanding chemical reaction. Silence figures prominently. Every traditional instrument heard - looking at you, saxophone - seems to be played in an unconventional manner, resulting in a host of odd timbres. Horns sound like they’re dying or maybe yelling at one another. Airing grievances into the void. The breath going through the sax becomes a musical element in and of itself. My dad, a saxophonist all his life, would not be pleased. Goofy and playful though some parts are, others positively seethe with tension and discomfort. As is the case with a band like Lightning Bolt, I’m left wondering if this album really does justice to the performance. Seeing this material played live would be wild. This is about as free as music gets. Expectations should be checked in at the door.
2020 has been a crazy year and doesn’t seem to be showing any sign of letting up. Maybe some of the music here can provide you a bit of a respite. Till next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourself and each other.