July 15, 2013

Unheard-Of: Charles Brown – Bull in a China Cabinet LP

After a long hiatus, The Globule is back (if temporarily), with the express intention of presenting this slab of outsider synth choogle from unknown Cincinnati, Ohio synth maestro Charles Brown. This, his only LP, was self-released on “Fracture Electronic Music” in 1981, and it’s a mind-bending collection, containing some of the most zonked synth virtuosity and ill-advised concept tracks I’ve ever come across.

The first half of the LP is Brown’s take on “pop” electronics. Though I think a better description might be “caveman synth rock”, of the proggish variety. After a brief intro of IMAX chordal bombast, the first number kicks off with squelching, panning basslines, and dry percussive shuffle, that thumps and hisses in true future-primitive style. The naively orchestral styles on display here are charmingly optimistic, yet thoroughly off-putting. A real feat.

Some real greasy whiteboy moog funk launches off the next track, before turning into a night-time cruiser, with tape-saturated four-on-the-floor thump, and a driving, two note bassline. From there, things turn disco, with some nice liquid-filtered licks, shimmering arpeggiations, and string synth pads to fill out the mix. Some heavy luxury vibes on display here, with just a hint of giallo darkness. A real “get-down attack”, which is just begging for a killer edit.

The last passage has a grandiose, adventurous flair, with a subtly Asian(?) motif. This one really stretches out, with plenty of wide-open soloing and chugging percussion. Like ELP on a cross-country train with YMO, or the buoyant ending to an Amiga videogame.

The last track on side 1 is a real tear-jerker, with wistful piano refrains, and lyrics about baby fawns (no joke). The fidelity here is pretty rough, both on my copy and in the recording in general. This “stripped down” mode is borderline cringe-inducing, though I admire the effort.

SIDE 2 throws the relatively “conventional” song structure out the window, in a suite composed around the charming theme of dealing with a kidney stone(again, not a joke, check the liner notes). It’s here that things really take a turn for the ill-advised, as all kinds of tone-deaf, searing tones roil and stab, in pure “stress induction” mode. Everything is detuned, howling, clanging, and zapping, in a somewhat clownish attempt at “anxiety” by someone who can’t seem to ditch his penchant for viruistic shredding.

There’s a good bit of dynamics going on, and an impressive pallet of synthetic moves, but the whole thing comes off pretty “goofed”. Reminiscent of a lot of library LPs, whose classically-trained creators were tasked with evoking very specific moods in as obvious a manner as possible. At times the childish thematics evoke a kind of hauntological charm, but mostly miss the mark.

Later bits verge on a kind of mutant proto-techno, with a dark, heavy bassline, and relentless stabs of rhythmic fuzz. The last segment features glorping, liquid drips, plodding pads, wildly phasing white noise washes, and a smokey, reverberant sax solo, adding up to an epic slow burner with a confoundingly unique mood.

The tech on display here is pretty impressive for a home-brew dude like Brown. The record label lists the following pieces of kit: Prophet 5, Rev 2, Oberheim expander modules, ARP 2600, in addition to the real mystery winner, the self-described “E-Mu 16 voice microprocessor keyboard, 48 K Ram, full software, with disk drive”. This was a year before the Emulator was launched (which was 8-voice anyway), so you figure it out.

Check a big chunk of the “rock” moves below, or grab the whole thing HERE

March 30, 2013

Rev You: Hacker Farm – UHF

There’s something in the air these days.

The menace of big data, unmanned drone surveillance and 3D printed weapons is reaching a pitch that’s hard to gloss over with gamified, targeted pleasantries. While the doomsday preppers among us have been hard at work sowing the seeds of technological paranoia since time immemorial, a new type of subtle discomfort has begun to spread amongst the general populace.

I can’t speak on every citizen’s behalf, but for me, the writing is on the wall: Over the course of one week, I watched the first series of “Black Mirror”, started following Evgeny Morozov on Twitter, and finally gave a listen to the latest missive from the UK electro-primitive collective Hacker Farm.

The minds behind the project are committed to a post-consumer, techno-skeptical methodology, using DIY electronics, hacked gear, and found sounds. Their motto “Make do and mend. Broken music for a broken Britain” has more than a whiff of half-serious subversion, and serves as a manifesto for their “whatever works” aesthetic. Meanwhile, the mysterious, loaded cover art looks like helicopter video surveillance of a derelict car, like the bleakest of evidence in some homegrown terrorism trial, or the last known location of some seditionary leader.

The record is a smorgasbord of dynamic, lo-fi grit. The album’s 10 song-length tracks effectively skirt genre into all the best nooks and crannies of experimentally-inclined electronics. The most successful bits are on par with the best Moebius & Beerbohm outings, keeping the industrial clatter always just shy of pure atonality. The general approach is brooding and soundtrack-esque, as sparse arrangements are augmented with swelling pads in mysterious chordal arrangement, soaked in plenty of trainyard clank and tape-fidelity grit.

Several pieces are more conventionally composed, with a nice sense of lyricism underpinning the hairy sound palette. Pleasantly mysterious lite-industrial soundscapes and spoken word snippets provide counterpoint to the more overt circuit frying. At one point, an “Anonymous”-style computer voice decries our app-crazed hollowness. In another, a MidWestern-inflected newsreader recites a list of unexplained phenomena. Unafraid to be critical in a way that feels just slightly tongue in cheek (as any smart criticism is), but still executed with enough flair to fall well on this side of Atari Teenage Riot.

Overall, the tracks are simple, rhythmic exercises with a metric ton of atmosphere and attitude, melding the spirit of 80s home-tapers with early techno/EDM experiments. The group’s most obvious contemporary might be fellow Brit Eckoplekz, for his improvisational approach to vintage sound, though Hacker Farm embraces a more “narrative” approach in their use of found sound and grimly cinematic progressions. UHF is a melting pot of fringe paranoia and dark techno-skepticism, an anthem for the confused, disturbed citizens of our technology-laden retro-future, 1980-present.

Check out the creeping ambience of “Burlington” below.

March 12, 2013

Designated: Esprit Showrooms by Sottsass Associati

In the second half of the 1980s, Memphis Group kingpin/post-modern genius Ettore Sottsass designed several flagship showrooms for ultra-hip activewear brand Esprit, under the auspices of his own studio, Sottsass Associati.

Esprit Showroom Entrance by Sottsass Associati

I recently came across an overview of the 4 showrooms (3 in Germany, one in Melbourne) in a publication called “International Contract Design Volume 1″, a showcase of outlandish, super-conceptual interiors from 1988. Each is a perfectly restrained riot of intersecting surfaces, matching bizarrely luxurious textures (marble, burl, polished chrome) with extreme color pops and his signature graphic laminates.

Though the images are a bit washed-out, this is the best collection I’ve yet come across of Sottsass Associati’s commercial works, so I’m happy to share them here. What I love most is the designer’s ability to keep the forms from flying into pure whimsy with a strict adherence to geometry, creating playful dynamics through architectural juxtaposition instead of free-form expressionism (ala Gehry, et al.)

February 25, 2013

Tomes: Cranbrook Design – The New Discourse

I recently stumbled across this 1990 gem, a survey of the legendary Cranbrook Academy of Art, one of the most storied US design schools, whose illustrious alumni list includes designers Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen. While some the most important design moves of the 20th century were made at Cranbrook in the 1940s and 50s, this volume deals exclusively with the school’s output from the years 1980-1989, and puts on display some truly original, reality-bending work, across graphics, interiors, products, and conceptual prototypes.

“Vernacular Message” model for Heinz by Robert Nakata

Much of the work falls under the heading of what the school’s faculty deems “interpretive design”, where the signs and symbols of culture as a whole have just as much bearing on form as function and manufacturing. This leaves space for plenty of poetics and post-modern “vernacular” touches, with an optimistic spirit.

Some of the pieces are easy to discount as time-frozen novelties, but the expressive, free-associative impulse is powerful, especially since it has all but vanished from product design today. Most of it is playful, pre-blobject futurism, with a transgressive edge.

The dissection and reinterpretation of brand “vernaculars” was an avant-garde practice that Cranbrook pioneered, simultaneously deconstructive and capitalist. Such experiments with brand identities were still de rigor during my time in Carnegie Mellon’s design department, some 20 years later. Robert Nakata’s totem to the Heinz aesthetic (pictured) is incredible in its tongue-in-cheek abstraction, executed with a hi-fi sheen. A consummately “corporate” product of absolutely no practical use.

Enjoy some of the more colorful bits from collection below:

Quadrio Seating by Michael McCoy

For Artifort, 1985

Office by Michael McCoy

Michael and Katherine McCoy balance quite nicely a Bauhaus sensibility with decade-appropriate blazing color pops, and “neo-classical” flourishes.

Hyper-Natural Scenery by Peter Stathis

Dehumidifier Prototype by Paul Montgomery

“Colorado” Seating by Michael McCoy

One of the more enigmatic projects on display is Peter Stathis’ “Hyper-natural Scenery Series”. The two pieces are improbable “future objects” that create counterfeit mood effects. One is a lamp-like neck that emits fog, wrapped in a glowing sheet of foam, the other a sleek black rock that mimics the glow of a fire.

Similarly, a largely unexplained model of a “computer” by William Wurz (it’s basically a black touchscreen “pool” of information, complete with synthetic grass), is simultaneously prescient and innane. Genius or goof?

Hyper-Natural Scenery by Peter Stathis

Computer Prototype by William Wurz

Stereo Receiver by Robert Nakata

Interior by Thomas Lehn and Kathleen Kelly

Interior by Thomas Lehn and Kathleen Kelly

As far as over-arching aesthetics go, Robert Venturi is an obvious influence (in his appreciation of cross-brow, “vernacular” tropes) alongside post-Memphis structuralists like Peter Shire and Michael Graves.

The charm of this collection really lies in its ability to show a group of likeminded individuals working under the unified auspicies of a “new way” (as bizarrely poetic as it might have been), informed equally by deconstructive post-modernism and the burgeoning influence of Human Centered Design. It’s a document of a very specific, hard-to-classify design impulse that flourished for just a few years before the multi-disciplinary “ergonomics mania” of the 90s took hold of design schools world-wide, and started dismantling such high-minded efforts.

February 21, 2013

Rev You: Actress – Silver Cloud 12″

UK electro-auteur Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, returns to the fold with another dark, hazy 12er on his own Werk Discs imprint.

Over the last 3 years, Actress has garnered a well-deserved reputation as a mysterious boundary-pusher, and his 2012 LP “RIP” solidified his cult status. His willingness to avoid consonance in favor of more “difficult” fare is laudable, and this 12″ is an excellent continuation of his intimate, “deep n’ damaged” sound.

Silver Cloud’s A-side is a 10-minute excursion into lo-fi haze, obscurely titled “Voodoo Posse Chronic Illusion”. Built out of chirping, bit-crushed lead, off-kilter rhythms, and IDM-style mystery tones, the entire track is bathed in a heavy static. Every sound serves more as an interruption in the omnipresent fuzz, as the intense side-chaining of each hit creates loping ghost rhythms. No-fi drum loops and plaintive guitar strum round out the “rainy-day” vibe, interrupted around the half-way point by a single, wistful vocal line.

Things get a little more sinister on the flip, though the baked-tape tone wash remains. Barely liminal vocals chant mantras of “Ecstasy”. Hissing hats, and a plodding, minor bassline give the proceedings a “chopped n screwed” vibe, but with a compositional rigor and persistent haze that keep it from genre baiting.

The last cut maintains a “throwed” style with pitched down clock strikes set to mutant slaps of the tape-mangled variety. Might be best described as Basic Channel at 16 RPM + “Devil Shit”-era Triple Six? Regardless, the lo-fi home-taped vibe captured here is what made the early “anything goes” experiments of proto-IDM weirdos like Boards of Canada and Lego Feet so compelling, but with a distinctive post-everything edge.

Nothing streaming, so peep bootleg of track 3 HERE.