January 14, 2013
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Tomes: SPATS #8: Animals

Dust off yr pompadour and warm up the xerox.

This mysterious 1989 volume by the equally elusive Hironori Yasuda consists of over 100 “Super Special Background Patterns”, hand-rendered in glorious black and white. The theme of this volume is “Animals”, and contains all kinds of mutant primitive motifs, a nice hybrid between Memphis exoticism and DIY copy-manipulation. Perfect for your your next glam-punk show flier or neo-Fiorucci ensemble.

Apparently this series is pretty rare, so I’m pleased to distribute these dusty nuggets of primary graphic source material to the digital realm. Grip a .zip of some high-quality scans HERE, and peep the cream of the crop below. Now get to work!

January 10, 2013
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Rev-You: Three Legged Race – Persuasive Barrier LP

Kentucky wonderkind Robert Beatty returns to form with his first proper full-length in 4 years, released courtesy of Spectrum Spools. I’ve been an avid follower of Robert’s audio and visual output over the past few years, and this extended set of synthetic fables delivers a fully matured version of the bent sci-fi aesthetic he’s been busy defining.

It would be easy to lump Three Legged Race’s sound with the legions of retro-synth revisionists making waves lately, but that would be a mistake. Whereas many of his contemporaries have ditched the grit of the underground that birthed them in favor of pristine synthetics, Robert celebrates his basement heritage, with just-hi-enough-fi soundscapes of mysterious origin. The vibe throughout is one of slow-burning desolation, on a definite “hard sci-fi” tip, which never resorts to the hollow droning or crushing intimidation tactics that so frequently sidetrack efforts like these.

Over the course of the album’s 8 tracks, Robert creates a mysterious, almost mischievous fantasy space, filled with bubbling pointillistic pseudo-rhythms, shadowy tape-echo, and occasional oozing vocals. This organic soundscape perfectly recalls the bulbous, playful murk of a Piotr Kamler animation, and indeed brings to mind Robert’s own artworks, a unique synesthetic achievement.

At times, wistful, single-note melodies plod through the vacuum, further heightening the sense of cosmic longing. Ricocheting squawks and garbled radio transmissions paint a picture of an alien sonic terrarium, floating in deep space. Translucent and cold, but filled with warm, fluttering lifeforms.

Robert’s relentless individualism and clarity of vision have served him well. He successfully walks the line between the alluring traps of linear song structure and total “kitchen-sink” style bleep-out to captivating effect. No sound exists in its pure form, and though he invokes vintage sonic tropes, his treatments are all his own, rigorously composed and executed. As his most thoroughly-composed effort to date, hopefully this LP will serve to attract more followers to Robert’s idiosyncratic world-view.

Listen to the almost Mort Garson-lineage ballad that is the album’s title track below:

January 7, 2013
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Designated: Vessels for Sentiment (A Brutalist Memoir)

(The following passage was written for submission to the architectural publication Clog, for which it was subsequently declined. C’est la vie)

For me, it all started with A Clockwork Orange. As an aspiring suburban outsider, I rented the VHS in early high school, and reveled in its barrage of satirical aesthetics. The garish, ultra-modern interiors, the post-Soviet “Nadsat” slang, and most importantly, the looming, grey architecture of future London, which intrigued me to no end.

The film repeatedly showcased London’s Thamesmead Estates and Brunel University Lecture Centre, both erected in the mid-1960s as landmarks of high Brutalism. These populist landmarks are repurposed less than a decade later as icons of Kubrick’s failed nanny state, in one of the late modern era’s most cynical future visions.

Soon after, a family visit to the Yale University Art Gallery (Louis Kahn, 1951-53), and my curiosity was once again piqued. The poured concrete ceilings and massive glass walls captured that same looming modernity, but with dignity and light. Bit by bit, brutalism became my first signifier of “Design”, as an abstract concept.

Growing up in small-town Connecticut, my built environment was one of wainscoting, shutters, and cupolas, where “quaint” embellishments were all-too-common stand-ins for living culture. To my spongey brain, these massive buildings were powerful symbols of an alluring “other”. Urbanity. Art. Socialism. Academia. The Future. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.

After landing in design school at CMU, I formed a deep, and to my classmates, confusing bond with Wean hall, a partially subterranean concrete behemoth housing the school’s mathematics departments. Of course, the drab, imposing exteriors look best in the rain, which Pittsburgh delivered on an all-too-frequent basis.

These buildings were designed & constructed in a time of great anticipation, and great apprehension. The glut of innovation and prosperity that defined post-WWII America cross-bred with communist paranoia, birthing populist institutions for higher learning with paramilitary undertones.

It is this bunker / temple identity crisis which makes all Brutalist buildings so fascinating, and so divisive. In the 60s, they were bridges on Spaceship Earth; beacons of a state’s commitment to an educated, well-managed populace. By the recession of the 1970s, many were approaching ruin, re-cast as symbols of urban inhumanity.

When I wasn’t toiling in the Italianate wings of the Design School, I often found myself roaming Wean’s halls in solitude, the dampened acoustics and droning ventilation hum evoking deep space. Despite the concrete’s uniform ubiquity, every square foot bore the mark of humanity. The staircases peppered with graffiti (of a uniquely modest scale), the casting holes of every panel filled with plastic bottle caps.

Like all the best design artifacts, a brutalist structure is modest, hardworking, and devoid of embellishments, a stoic embodiment of timelessness. They stand in for our most base insecurities and our most egalitarian aspirations. Even today, they are enriched in semantic meaning by every inhabitant, from the vandal to the department head, and their livelihood is inextricable from our own.

November 28, 2012
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Designated:
The Cynic/Romantic Genius of Enzo Mari

Enzo Mari is one of my all-time favorite design theorists and practitioners, and basically the definition of a “cult” designer. 

While he has a few well-known designs (perhaps the 16 Animals toy being his most famous), many of his 100s of creations were produced in limited runs by Italian manufacturers from the 50s through the 90s. He has very little in the way of a signature style, believing almost religiously in the existence of an “ideal” form for every useful object, rooted more in a sense of cosmic pragmatism than his own ego. Most importantly, though, Mari has always been a fiery, outspoken dissident in the usually self-satisfied world of design theory. Though much of his rhetoric is based to some degree on a romantic, utopian impulse, no other designer has embodied such a pure anti-corporate attitude while maintaining such a high level of intellectual rigor.

Perhaps his defining bad-ass moment came in 1972 with the launch of the MoMA’s legendary exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”. The exhibit was an onslaught of new idealism and riotous forms in plastic and chrome. Mari, himself a true master of perfectly crafted plastic objects, chose instead to submit a critical essay, on the uncertain ethics of ALL design practice.

Best of all, Enzo Mari has uttered some of the 20th century’s heaviest quotes on the subjects of design and industry. I’ve compiled a few of his heaviest hitters below:

Despite a looming intellect, Mari is a staunch critic of formal schooling, and has always embraced the visceral. In one of my favorite quotes from 2010, he slams not only the blatant monetizing of higher education, but also the watered-down appropriation of the late modernists by a new generation (I’m looking at you, Tumblr…)

“…schools are a business. They exist to shape people to support industrial needs: making things that please the mass and last as little as possible, so they can be replaced. Supporting this means supporting a family thinking not a societal thinking. So everyone is all up in arms calling Zanuso, Castiglioni or Sottsass their heroes and tapping into the surface of their work. Rather than understanding its essentially ethical nature and trying to bring it to the next level, they copy the form. I say let’s teach our kids to be craftsmen, to master again the art of drawing (a slow skill that requires thinking), to understand what was done in the past, and why and how… “

On smashing the state (and hard work):

“We need to get rid of the idea of global profit, finance, industries and brands. We need to get rid of advertising, and of all forms of sponsored communications, of the world of forms with no essence that has replaced our kids’ school and education. Of all that exists to convince us that we need what we do not need, and that knowledge, wisdom and success can be easy and require no effort. We need to get rid of all the family-driven morals that could be all fine and well by themselves but that are all nonetheless blind. And we need to open our eyes towards a new collective ethic. And then, we may also have new designs. Because the first condition to create good design is passion for transformation.”

On the distillation of culture (I feel like he’s essentially invoking the self-referential vacuum of the internet, without being explicit):

“This surrounding mess has become our school, our reference point, our inspiration. Not only in design, obviously, but in everything. It’s the by-product of superficiality, of people mistaking freedom of expression with ignorant anarchy. Are people happy with it? Possibly, because real knowledge is hard work. What a philosopher thinks can be summarized in one straightforward page. But in order to get there, he wrote 800 pages of clarifications, answers to possible opposing opinions, arguments. Diffused banality brings about empty idea repetition.”

On “the virtues of negative fascination” (to quote SRL):

“I would say all the time ‘look out the window. If everything you see outside is beautiful, and right, and you approve it, there’s nothing left to design. If there is something that makes you want to choke the designer and the commissioner with your own bare hands, something that horrifies you, that is the reason of your project.”

What’s most interesting about his huge body of work is the clear through-line that can be read across many of his projects. It is his perceived “failures” as a designer and thinker that spur him into future action. It’s this modest, restless quality that most endears me to Mari’s worldview.

As he recounts in the video below, his innovative, affordable design of the convertible “Day-Night” sofa-bed in 1968 for Driade was a total flop, as even radically-minded european students dreamt of gaudy excess in their own image.


Enzo Mari & His Creations, 1980


The “Day/Night” Convertible Sofa Bed

Instead of setting out to teach himself the ways of society, Mari decided to teach society something about itself, rebounding from the project with the “Autoprogettazione” series. Consisting of nothing more than instructions for building simple, sturdy furniture from readily available pre-cut lumber, the project was a desperately sincere an attempt at subverting the messages of the commercial design world. Sharing more aesthetically with Donald Judd’s austere conceptualism than his decadent (though equally cynical) Italian contemporaries.

November 19, 2012
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Emerging Aesthetics: Music About Dance Music

In many ways, Electronic Dance Music is the ultimate breeding ground for hyper-memetics. Moreso than any other genre, EDM has evolved in such a way that new subgenres not only embody smaller and more specific aesthetics, but are often born out of a SINGLE sound or piece of kit. Without the Amen break, there would be no Jungle, without the 303, there would be no Acid. While the mutation of hyper-specific sound-sets is usually exciting at first, it often leads in short order to carbon-copying and ultimately, a loss of objective judgment. How can something be good or bad, when it can only sound one way?

Over the last few years, a new and curious crop of sonic experimenters has emerged, focusing their efforts on the re-contextualization of the ubiquitous sonic tropes and cultural baggage that define the norms of dance music culture. When the most thoughtless cliches are left to thrash in a vacuum, their absurdity quickly becomes inescapable. In this time of total cultural access, forward-thinking artists are choosing self reflection. This is Music About Dance Music.

 

Lesser – “Adios Amen”
Lesser is the snide, punk-indebted laptop-based project of one Jason Doerck, whose halcyon days in Northern California coincided with more high-minded experimentalists like Matmos, and snotty MAX/MSP brats like Kid606. While the vast majority of his output is of questionable quality and motivation, I’ve always enjoyed “Adios Amen”, his super-cynical sendup of the Amen break from 1998. Tweaked, time-stretched, and echoed beyond all recognition, the track is a ludicrous “fuck you” to the useless manipulations of the Drum and Bass genre that spawned his career.

 

DJ Sprinkles – “Grand Central, Pt. 1 (Deep into the Bowels of House)”
Terre Thaemlitz, aside from being a supremely sensitive sound manipulator (and a personal hero), is a master of critical discourse, especially when it comes to the world of dance music culture. His 2009 album “Midtown 120 Blues” under the DJ Sprinkles moniker is an earnest, compassionate memoir of the troubled world of New York gay nightlife that he experienced firsthand in the ’80s and ’90s. The journey of House music from underground phenomena to popular feel-good cash-in is told through 10 tracks of somber, deep-house explorations, peppered with his own narration throughout. Possibly the strongest example of “Music About Dance Music” here, and a mirror image of Lesser’s critic-baiting temper tantrums, Terre makes his intentions entirely clear.

 

Lorenzo Senni – “Makebelieve”
Lorenzo Senni, the 28-year-old founder of the Presto!? label (home to such avant luminaries as Marcus Schmickler, CM Von Hausswolff, and Lasse Marhaug), can be credited with putting this entire notion of meta-EDM in my brain. His newest LP “Quantum Jelly” was a formed around a dead-simple concept: Trance build-ups, isolated and extended to song length. The result is an oddly beguiling set of bubbling, minor-key arpeggiations that twist through an utter vacuum. Waiting for a drop that never comes gives these pieces a sort of wistful charm, despite their stark, digital sheen.

 

Mark Fell – “SOA-2″
Mark Fell has been creating boundary-pushing electronic music for over a decade as half of SND, and most recently under the moniker Sensate Focus. This newest project, while ostensibly comprising his most danceable material to date, might also be his most subversive. Each release(now totaling 4 12″s and a double LP), uses an almost identical (and intentionally non-remarkable) sound palette of kicks/hats/claps, diva vocal clips, and house-y synth stabs. The magic lies in their combination, as all conventions of rhythmic interplay are cast to the wind. Though the BPM remains constant, elements are free to shift, skitter, slide, and mutate across each track’s length. The track showcased here is from an LP under his own name, that further extends these “automatic house” arrangements with Fell’s signature alien flourish.

 

Lee Gamble – “Emu”
One of the latest releases on Pan, Germany’s premiere experimental imprint, comes from Lee Gamble, a musician who found himself at a crossroads in the early 2000s. A refugee from the UK’s Jungle/DNB scene of the mid-90s, Lee took a hard left turn towards the academic, embracing procedural computer music with admirable rigor. This year, he attempted to bridge the gap between past life and present with “Diversions 1994-1996″, a collection of extended, mysterious mantras sourced primarily from his vast collection of hand-dubbed jungle mixtapes. Atmospheric interludes are stretched and devolved, and desolate breakbeats hover in and out of focus over all manner of found-sound detritus and smoldering tape hiss. At certain points, the tracks approach Robert Turman-level looping timelessness, and perfectly encapsulate the duality of isolationism and community that must have characterized a life in the 90s underground.

 

EVOL – “Rave Slime”
This last one’s a bit of a lark, though it probably wins the award for “Clarity of Vision”. It comes from Barcelona’s Roc Jiménez de Cisneros, aka EVOL, who makes what he describes as “Computer Music for Hooligans”. “Rave Slime” is brutal dissection of rave and hardcore techno’s most insipid indulgence: the “Hoover”. The “Hoover” sound, a synth patch made inescapable in many forms of harder dance music over the past 15 years (and somehow now crossing over into American pop music…), started as a preset called “What The?” on the Roland Alpha Juno synthesizer. This totally cheeky single puts the final nail in the Hoover’s coffin, with 2 extended workouts of nothing but. The result is intriguing, but borderline unlistenable, which is exactly what EVOL was shooting for.