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.

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.

February 5, 2013

Rev You: Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement – The Plant With Many Faces

If you consider yourself a fan of “noise music” from the last 10 years, there’s an extremely good chance you’ve heard of Dominick Fernow. Aside from his most high-profile project Prurient, and his association with minimal-wave darlings Cold Cave, Dom’s been involved in at least dozens, if not hundreds, of shadowy projects over the years in the harsh/dark realm.

Releasing most of his material on his own imprint, Hospital Productions, Fernow’s recorded output over the last five years has been a more or less unending stream of mysterious cassettes and CDRs. His Li’l B-level prolificacy often breaks the album/month barrier, and the offerings are served up STRICTLY LIMITED.

What makes Fernow’s output more compelling than the average morass of lo-fi junk that circulates the underground is his master manipulation of persona. The man is an arch conceptualist, founding dozens of anonymous “groups” whose names and song titles move away from simple identifiers to the level of obtuse poetry. As such, each “project” is a dive into a speculative genre of noise yet undeveloped, its motivations and politics unclear.

One persona, the spare, drum-machine driven, counter-terrorism obsessed Vatican Shadow (named in honor of the Pope’s secret service) has recently broken through the underground. With a new crossover fan-base of dark techno fanatics worldwide, it reached major blog-hype status with a string of vinyl releases in 2012. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Just for fun, here’s a few choice examples from Fernow’s back catalog, alongside speculative “themes”(my own guesses, of course)

Exploring Jezebel – “Attending UCLA Lecture on Forced Feminisation in Prison” Cassette
(Female domination)

Force Publique Congo – “Population Loss in the Rubber-Rich Equatorial Colonies” 2xCassette Box
(Banana republic colonialism)

Infrastructure Zero – “Cessna children” Cassette
(Military-industrial contracting, sample track: “Scaffolding Rusting in Stormwater”)

Sierra Leone Anger – “Executive Outcomes” 2xCassette
(The trial of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor, including a track titled “His Crew Tried to Kill Him With a Cancer Ray Camera” Hyper-specific!)

Christian Cosmos – “Cadence Upon The Threshold Of Judgement” Cassette
(Theology, natch. Sample track title: “God Has Entered So Fully into the Human Experience That Everything Has Changed”)

Mitochondrial DNA – “Strawberry Sugar Zeros” Cassette
(Your guess is as good as mine on this one)

Whereas most “concept” albums are imbued with self-important rhetoric, Dom keeps everything hazily incindiary. The verbatim, found-text poetry of the project and release names, and the obtuse yet loaded titles and art congeal into a totally compelling package, embodying the same kind of hazy, mysterious magic that empowered VHS box art of yore. All the while, there’s a silent army of fanboy salivators plunking down three figures on Discogs and Ebay for a shot at a complete collection. The dude’s invented fresh new ways to play off dark fascination in order to move units, and you have to applaude him for it.

So what does it all sound like? Who knows. For every cassette that gets ripped and shared, or is given the Boomkat treatment, a dozen more slip through the cracks of the Internet. Much like the onslaught of Z-grade VHS that flooded the market at the beginning of the VCR age, the fun is in not knowing quite what lies inside.

All this brings us to Fernow’s latest outing in localized occult role-playing, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. The four 10+ minute tracks on “The Plant with Many Faces” are a humid, low-fi traipse through dark tropics, their titles evoking jungle shamans and black magic animism. The album kicks off with a phasing synth pulse, and just as you ready yourself to get sucked into some neon-lit carpenter-soundscape, the whole thing is enveloped by a torrent of low-fi scuzz, with the sparsest of rhythmic clank. Only occasional tape-loop shrieks and wails pierce the shroud.

From there, we are treated to a patient suite of subdued, fuzzy atmospheres, in turn menacing and morose, pensive and threatening. With only the faintest hints of rhythmic/melodic content, and James Ferraro levels of audio infidelity, the album works best as a mood piece, echoing the tape-saturated bed music of Robert Turman or Graveyards at their most mellow. An unpolished but intriguing listen, executed with an admirable restraint that ultimately dulls its effects.

It’s also worth noting that as of right now, this is a widely available download-only release, indicating the turning of a new leaf (all puns intended) for the sub-underground project. Comparisons to gauzy darkness sculptors like Demdike Stare and Andy Stott are entirely valid, and in the wake of those groups’ massive hype in 2012, Hospital is taking the product to the people.

When you’ve worked your way through their catalog of 30 Muslimgauze albums, give Dom’s latest a listen on Spotify.

January 22, 2013

Rev You: Madteo – Noi No LP

I’m a little late to the party, but I can’t pull myself away from this late-2012 chunk of playful darkness from NYC art-house outsider Madteo.

The 11 experiments that compose the LP are in turn heavy, compelling, goofy, seductive, difficult, and cracked. Released into the world by Finnish label Sahko, champions of such out-sound missionaries as Ø (aka Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio), and Globule favorites NSI, it’s the perfect type of non-standard outing to make you question your musical motives.

The backbone of this enigmatic release is its use of fragmented samples. Half-spoken statements, half-hearted melodic lines, and all manner of dark, gauzy pads trip, stutter, and shuffle throughout every track. On even the most linear cuts, unstable filter-house moves tether the mercurial vocalizations, which echo as if from the bottom of a sewer.

The track “Rugrats Don’t Techno for an Answer” comes closest to the mainstream, threaded through with de-contextualized samples of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room”. The “rugrats” in question chirp ignorantly over Madteo’s own more atmospheric, subtly organic morass. Though it might sound insufferably snarky, the result is more AFX than Kid606. It’s a complex piece of conceptual irony with plenty of ambiguity. In the light of the more extended loop manipulations that make up the bulk of the album, this experiment reads nothing like a “remix” or straight ahead subversion. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Arca’s recent genre-queering work, but without the street-wise bounce.

One track, the 6 minute “Vox Your Nu Yr Resolution”, which repeats the title phrase and its answer (“Stayin’ out of trouble”) in a dizzying cascade of chopped and stuttering fragments. The closest touchstone might be Steve Reich’s tape phase pieces, especially “Come Out”, or the early work of Nicholas Collins. Perversely non-musical, but hypnotic nonetheless.

These arch-conceptual experiments are cut with several more low-key interstitials built around the patient gating, slicing, and triggering of a single synth pad or sampled phrase, creating dark, loping atmospheres.

In total, Noi No is a mostly successful collection of post-everything glitch experimentation that seems pleasantly sincere in its desire to subvert without belittling its subject matter. To me, this is highly personal computer music at its best.

January 10, 2013

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: