Wednesday, April 26, 2023

putting a lid on intermmitence, growing the garden / listening II

I finally have some furniture in my new apartment. Well, a chair, at least. Do you really need more furniture than that? Anyways, the plan is to start spending more time in Aloysius Place. I've been meaning to come back for a while. Two things I read at the end of last year convinced me that coming here more to record some thoughts might be more fun than letting them drift off into the ether...

The first was Suspended Reason's essay about the mythic resonance of gardens, which depicted the process of growing a garden in a way that I found very exciting. Gardens, literal and metaphorical alike, hold a deep kind of spiritual comfort. They're places where you can hide from the outside world, yet also study and play with fragments you've taken from it. And what is this blog if not a garden?

The other piece of writing was a reflection on 20 years of blogging from Simon "Born to Boogie" Reynolds. I particularly liked the reminder that the timeless appeal of this format lies in its intuitiveness. Indeed, writing that's too relaxed and devoid of pretense for more professional contexts, yet more considered than you could manage in live conversation, is honestly the ideal. Not just to write, but also to read. If I find someone with an interesting perspective, I'll sometimes spend hours going through their old blog and forum posts. As far as I'm concerned, enabling that is basically the entire point of the internet.

I haven't forgotten that I expressed a desire to raise the standards of writing around here back in early 2020. I think my best posts so far actually did come after that: the Burrowing in for the Long Winter series, the Neon Screams review, and the Esoteric Experiences at Home series... which I really should write the second half of very soon. But the downside of exerting greater quality control is that updates have become quite rare, in a way that feels badly out of sync with the speed at which one's thoughts, opinions, interests naturally develop.

So now that I've made some changes in real life, maybe it's time to get this place going. But how? Well, surely by returning to the core tenet of this blog: talking about music that no one I know cares about as if it occupied the center of the universe. (And maybe it does.) One of my first posts here was a screed of notes on various music I was into at the time called Listening 1. "1" because, obviously, I was going to follow up on it very soon. So half a decade later, let's get on with Listening 2...
The Advent vs. Joey Beltram - Fractals / Rock Bottom
"Banging unintelligent techno" from two geniuses of the genre. If this release is, as the title suggests, a fight, it's a sort of Barrera vs. Marquez matchup: a chance to watch two evenly matched veterans operating at a very advanced level of the game. 

The Advent's track "Rock Bottom" takes my favorite approach to techno. A machinic monotony that gets ruptured by headspinning switchups. The balancing act of knowing how and when to swerve without (completely) throwing your passengers out of the groove. The spirit of early turntablism extrapolated beyond its material origins. A few highlights include: a) how sparingly the glittering arpeggiated synth hook is used, its form never firmly established but instead revealed through an accumulation of fleeting, distorted mirages, like a magic object you occasionally glimpse but never reach b) various exhilarating changes in pressure and c) all the angular rhythmic constructions Ferreira manages to work in, using a generic techno beat as a base. If only more dance music could achieve this paradoxical marriage of hypnotic groove and quickstep agility. 
I wrote off "Fractals" as lesser after a cursory listen, but love it now. As you'd expect from Beltram, the soundsculpting is on point—immensely satisfying for its cartoon-world punchiness and beatboxible phonetic clarity. So is the shifting, tightly interlocking machine into which its parts are sequenced. Compared to "Rock Bottom", the motions of "Fractals" are less choppy and easier to grasp—but just as forceful. Beltram's main hook is the complete opposite of Ferreira's elusive arpeggiated shimmering. It's an unvoice mantra that exerts constant high-temperature pressure and only relents when it temporarily dissipates out of the foreground, becoming a protean wall of fog looming in the distance. Maybe my favorite sound character, though, is an erratic "boinging" noise that Beltram lets lose unpredictably, and only ever for a second or two at a time—as though, given any more leeway, its violent elastic ricocheting would rip apart the entire rhythmachine from inside out. There's a distressed quality to the exhilaration of "Fractals"—like a ship pressing forward with all its internal alarms going off. 
Model 500 - Deep Space 

This is science fiction as it seemed when I was a kid: not cheesy and man-childish, but mysterious, vast, and wise. In Juan Atkins' vision of the future it's always night (has been for the past few hundred years) and life is a series of lonely spacecraft cruises from one ecumenopolis to the next. That's not to say it's a dystopia. Quite the opposite. The daylight futures of the new millennium are nowhere near as stylish. For me, no vision of the future exerts quite the same pull of yearning as the one 90s Model 500/Infiniti so vividly evokes.

On a closer-up level, Deep Space is all about artful mercuriality. Its tracks don't jump from section A to section B so much as establish a basic structure that morphs smoothly and endlessly. This approach wasn't unique in the mid 90s, but what's exciting is how adeptly Atkins and his collaborators navigate the infinite morphological variations it allows, how they always seem to find the best available possibility. It's a matter of pacing, for one: when to bring sounds in and out, and in what combinations. But it's also a matter of sound design. That term can imply a sort of lab coat technical rigor, but from a musician's standpoint, sometimes it's just a matter of finding and playing with a preset. And I'd guess that's often what's going on here. I mentioned Joey Beltram's ear for choosing sounds with strong phonetic properties. But whereas in his case it might just be intuitive, I think Aktins has to be doing it intentionally. Take a track like "Starlight": how the filtering of the chords and syncopated delayed sounds doesn't change randomly, but rather to articulate certain vowel shapes: "aaahhohhh" "eeeoww" "oooooo" etc. The point is: even when playing with the comparatively lawless aspects of musical sound that we crudely refer to as "timbre"—a producer still has to be discerning and selective to get the best results.

That's not to say that the album is all drift and no dramatic gesture. In the album version of "I Wanna Be There" there's a moment where the music shuts off, interrupting Atkins mid-sentence. Everything cuts down to a very sparse 80s-style beat—leaving you wondering if what you're hearing is an accident, a musical typo that somehow went uncorrected. But then, after a few suspenseful seconds, everything from before (and more) floods back in like a slowly expanding burst of light...
The aesthetic shadow of Basic Channel (Moritz Von Oswald is of course credited here as engineer) suggests a feedback loop of influence. Evolution, rather than dogged protection of an initial vision. But there's also a warmth to these tracks that contrasts with the dourness of Basic Channel's otherwise similar atmospheres. A poignant space-age optimism that, for better or worse, I can't imagine you find in much techno today. 

Oh, and there's not a single moment on this album that doesn't groove hard.

Francois Bayle - Grande Polyphonie

Francois Bayle’s music stands out among the forbidding greyscale experiments of his cohorts. His work can get as dense and demanding of repeated listens as any music I know of. But there’s something about it, an airy delicate lightness, often paired with a kind of warm-climate surrealism, that’s just different. Bayle’s not so much a physicist or philosopher in a lab coat as he is a poet from antiquity in a lab coat. His music evokes an epoch (perhaps lost to time, perhaps yet to come) in which science fiction and myth peacefully coexist. A world something like the floating kingdom of Zeal in Chrono Trigger.

Side A of Grande Polyphonie functions as a series of sound-character studies. Each major character gets a substantial amount of time and mix-space to establish itself. This works out well, because of how fascinating, evocative, and beautiful the materials are. We hear percussion, stringed instruments, and birdsong; but the percussion moves in psychedelic slow motion, the stringed instruments bend and rattle in impossible ways, and the birds aren’t made of organic matter—likely automatons forged by Hephastus. Towards the end we encounter a babbling bell, and squeaky sound-creatures vaguely reminiscent of the ones that would populate Rashad Becker’s “experimental” music four decades later, except deployed here in pointillistic flurries rather than portentous ceremonies. The only track title hinting at imagery is “In the Garden”—which strengthens a sense that you’re exploring grounds belonging to some magical deity, or maybe an ultra-wealthy patron of bizarre science experiments in a William Gibson novel.

Side B throws you into the deep end. If before he was holding back, it’s now that Bayle truly goes for it, building up a cacophony so dynamic it almost defies description. Night falls, the spirits in the forest wake up, planes of reality overlap. Tons of new sounds are introduced, including birdsong, laughter, drums, trumpets, the violent shouting of crowds, metallic impacts, and twinkling electronic pulses that prefigure the constellations of the Erosphere cycle several years later. But within this chaos there is continuity. Nearly all the sounds of the previous half make reappearances. The best and fullest return is a shadowy rumbling that haunted the album’s opening minutes. Unlike Bernard Parmegiani, who, it seems to me, tends to play with a sound for a few minutes and then toss it aside without thinking twice—Bayle remembers and returns to his sounds, not so much transforming them entirely as modulating them the way a classical composer modulates themes. This strengthens their emotional resonance, the sense that they really are characters. And within the storms of transposed and reversed percussion here there are many recurring motifs. This is chaos, but a comprehensible chaos. The album ends with a "reminder" of its opening themes—now with darker, gloomier coloring. It’s day again. But after the night's ordealwhether it was a party or a riot of the spirits, or just a massive glitch in realitythings seem different.

(If you’re as into Bayle's music as I am, it’s interesting to see some footage of him formulating one of the sound characters in “Le Langage des Fleurs” from L'Experience Acoustique at 5:42 in this very recent interview. The magic of stumbling on a recording of something Historic when you’d assumed there wasn’t one. I find the whole interview really interesting though, even as old as he is now.)

Baby Ford & Ian B. - Dead Eye

I’ve never gotten into Baby Ford (both the title and sound of “Oochy Koochy” make me queasy) but I'm probably the biggest Ian Loveday fan under the age of 40 in the Upper Midwest. And not just because we have the same first name. Since first hearing one of his tracks (first "Inner Mind (Freebass Mind)" and later, of course, “Spice”) I’ve noticed a weird affinity of aesthetic sensibilities. Down to small details. For example, there’s a sample of a car door slamming shut that I randomly downloaded years ago and find incredibly satisfying, enough to use over and over in my own music-making, which is strikingly similar to a sound that turns up in a number of Loveday’s productions from the mid 90s. But I digress… 

Although there isn’t much to suggest it, I think “Dead Eye” takes place underwater. Submersion in complete darkness; dawning awareness of forces moving around you. The sound of an airplane appearing at one point might seem to contradict this mental picture, but if anything it only adds to the trippiness of the whole experience: a moment of image-sound surrealism Francois Bayle would surely approve of. But as brilliant and evocative as the various foley sounds are, it’s the drone and faint melody that appear exactly two minutes in that give the track its psychological core: the awed apprehensiveness of moving forward through an unknown and
dangerous-seeming environment.

What are we to make of the title, alluded to in a recurring sample ("it’s Dead Eye Jones, man”)? I guess it's the name of a character in The Lone Ranger? But in this context, it’s also the nickname astronauts have given to a giant alien shark. A mysterious and infamous creature that’s proved deadly to their research submarines… one of which you’re currently inside.

Arguably, this track is like Tago Mago-era Can distilled from endless layers of multitracking down to its core elements: an utterly hypnotic breakbeat groove above which hallucinations dance. If you wanted to you could say it's Can improved by removal of all hippie excess (pseudo-jazz noodling, quirky vocals). Is this even remotely accurate? I don't know. It's been a while since I listened to Can. But I probably won't know any time soon, because I'll be listening to “Dead Eye” instead.

Alright, it’s 7:00 AM, time to stop writing…


  1. Matthew McKinnonMay 1, 2023 at 7:05 PM

    Track down more of that Ford / Loveday (and Broom) stuff if you can - the whole Ifach catalogue is available to download. A lot of it is excellent.
    I had DeadEye on their compilation CD back in 1995, played it to death.

    1. where is it available to download? on bandcamp?