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