Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zorch and the Surreal Bagpiper

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the downtown nightlife in Tuscon, but it was much more vibrant than I expected. There were crowds of people moving around each other, drawn endlessly in and out of bars and clubs while bands blared cover tunes off the rooftops. I was interested in nothing more than a glass of iced tea, so I quickly grew tired of weaving in and out of the mob. I finally meandered into an upscale coffeehouse called Sparkroot, ordered some mint tea sweetened with agave, and settled down with my laptop to blog.

From this vantage point, the diversity of the quirky throng became apparent. Gender-bending cross-dressers and stroller-pushing moms sidled up by each other at vendor stands sharing their anticipation of an upcoming comic-con while mustached hipsters and their girlfriends sipped clear and (I assume) potent drinks from tiny glasses. It all seemed quite normal. No one even seemed particularly surprised when bagpipe and drum ensemble marched up to the street corner and began blaring out Amazing Grace.

It’s not that people weren’t appreciative – they whooped and hollered and took pictures like they would at any good street performance. They just didn’t seem that surprised. I, on the other hand, was stunned and somewhat upset that my phone was back at the hotel recharging. It was too surreal to believe – and it just got weirder when one of the bagpipers noticed the sticker on my laptop.

The sticker has a few bars of piano music and says, in big black letters, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK A MUSIC TEACHER.” When I am out in public, it is not uncommon for me to catch people reading it and share a knowing insider’s glance. This piper caught sight of it, however, and disarmingly strode up to me. Flustered, I awkwardly complimented his group’s performance, but his blank, serious expression did not waver. I was determined not to be intimidated by a man in a kilt, but then I noticed his pupils subtly swirling and changing shape…

I was horrified and slightly dizzy. Without breaking his gaze, he reached behind his beard into his jacket, seemingly farther than normal physics would allow, and pulled out a CD. He placed it carefully on the keyboard of my laptop, turned on his heels, and strode off to catch up with his ensemble.  I looked down at the CD and my blood ran cold. It was ZZorchh, the debut release from local Austin band Zorch.

I have followed this psychedelic noise pop band since I stumbled upon their ear-splitting performance at the Deerhoof after-show. They made such an impression on me back then on that frigid night that I downloaded their demo EP and rather enjoyed it, but like most short-form collections, I had a hard time getting it to compare favorably to other things I was listening to in the long term. I had been considering buying this full-length since I heard of its release for quite awhile – and there it was.

In my recent review of the F*ck Buttons, I bemoaned what I saw as the general lack of technical ability in music that features sonic innovation. Back in the day, artists like Rick Wakeman married technique with technology using Moog synthesizers and the like. Zorch addresses this issue. They manipulate technology in a way that opens up an incredibly broad musical palette, especially for a duo, but their music feels risky in a way that places the controls in human hands.

The resulting chaos is breathtaking. I find it hard not to make comparisons to Frank Zappa, especially due to the frenetic drumming. Certainly, Zorch accesses a tounge in cheek surrealism that was characteristic of a late-70s Zappa band, minus the overt social satire.  The band's use of keyboards and computer assistance is decidedly contemporary, however, rather like Animal Collective collaborating with Terry Bozzio.  A frightening, overstimulating combination, to be sure, but compelling nonetheless.

As far as the means by which I acquired the album, I calmly finished my tea and  made my way back to the hotel as if nothing happened.  There is definitely a point at which reality and surreality mixed that evening, but even now, looking back on it, the details are unclear.  You can figure it out for yourself if you really feel the need.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

S U R V I V E: Staring Down an Invasion in Tuscon

My friend The Best Man and I have been promising each other that we would eventually crack the underground Austin synth scene. He recently discovered a band called S U R V I V E but alas, their album was only available in sold- out limited edition vinyl and downloadable MP3. As much as I value the suggestions of friends, this limitation would have probably kept them out of rotation permanently.

Last weekend, however, in a direct attempt to stare down my remaining apprehensions about heavy lifting, I attended a CrossFit Olympic Lifting Instructors Course in Tuscon, Arizona. This was to be a quick solo trip, so any music I planned to bring for the plane ride and layovers would have to be in soft format. It seemed like an opportunity to give S U R V I V E a shot.

This ended up being a smart move. While I still admit that I would like to see the album cover professionally printed and mounted in a jewel case, the content of the album is shady and immersive in a way that can best be delivered through earphones. I played S U R V I V E through my phone when I was walking around Tuscon, which ended up being quite a bit more than I had initially planned. Once I got a feel for the area between my hotel and CrossFit Works, I found that I preferred a 30 minute walk surrounded by distant mountains and an epic alien invasion soundtrack to an 8 minute (and $10) drive with an awkward Russian cabbie.

S U R V I V E takes more than one page from Jean Micheal Jarre’s early playbook, particularly the ethereal and dynamic Equinoxe, Oxygene, and Les Chantes Magetiques trilogy. Jarre was playful and exploratory on these synth masterpieces. In contrast, S U R V I V E conjures a dark, ominous, and almost gothic tone using the gloomy synth sounds of late 80s Depeche Mode. While other electronic projects like the F*ck Buttons might use more contemporary technology to produce a broader variety of sounds, S U R V I V E does a whole lot more musically with much less.

S U R V I V E is one of several local synth bands that orbit around the Austin vintage synth shop Switched On, and they are so underground that they almost don’t exist. There are a few reviews of their sporadic live shows that indicate that their performances are epic. Aside from these, some links that lead to album download, and an intermittently updated Facebook page, there is very little about S U R V I V E online. I can barely figure out if or when they are playing next, but I would be interested in seeing them live.

From what I have seen, however, they seem to have some sort of following in Germany. While that’s not too surprising, considering the history of synth music in what is Kraftwerk’s homeland, I have never had to do a Euros conversion to purchase an album from a local band before.

Not too long ago, I became a bit snobby about listening only to local music, because I was convinced that it held the potential to stand outside of the agenda of the record industry. “Independent music” is, paradoxically, more mainstream now, and has its own political agenda that musicians have to navigate. S U R V I V E is one of those bands that purposefully fly under the radar, doing something not for fortune or fame, but because they have a genuine love for what they do. They are clearly passionate about the untapped potentials of traditional analog synthesizers and their current relevance, and their adoration of these instruments infuses their music with conviction.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sound of Contact and the Approval of the Faceless

The progeny of past musical icons often find themselves in artistically perplexing and complex positions. For example, I’d love to be able to say that I could listen to Dimensionaut free of the temptation to compare Simon Collins to his father Phil, and by extension, Sound of Contact to Genesis. It seems, however, that I am not that big.

In my defense, though, Collins Jr. does not make it easy. There are definitely musical similarities, some of which might even be the result of his genes, and he capitalizes on them. Within his comfort zone, his vocal tone is immediately reminiscent of Collins Sr, but he doesn’t cut loose in the timbral extremes that his father played with. Collins Jr. also has a drumming style that is also clearly influenced by his father, and the drum sounds on Dimensionaut plainly reveal the way in which he intends to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Despite these similarities, however, Collins Jr. is not his father, yet we find him assembling a contemporary progressive rock band with the implicit expectation to step into his parent’s shoes: an expectation that forces him to decide whether he plans to speak to his own generation or gain the approval of his father’s residual audience.

A desire for approval can be an incredibly destructive trait. The times in my life that I have been the most unhappy are inevitably surrounded by a nearly obsessive need to get approval, often from someone who does not readily give approval at all. It took some serious reflection to learn to accept this about myself and let go of the opinions of others. Seeking approval in a musical situation can be similarly destructive. Basing artistic directions on the assumed opinions of a faceless audience is a slippery slope, and reciprocally, self-absorbed narcissism can wear thin in the long term.

I think, however, that Collins Jr. is genuine about bearing the torch for his father’s more progressive roots. Admittedly, there are some music traits that are passed down genetically, but the style of music that children adopt is largely the product of their environment. Collins Jr. was obviously around a lot of his father’s music growing up. With the collaborative presence of Dave Kerzner, whose pedigree has its own intersections with Genesis, Dimensionaut is actually very good. It’s great, keyboard-based approach recalls 90s neo-prog stalwarts IQ, but Sound of Contact is far more muscular and engaging, due in no small part to Collins’ drumming.

The lyrics, however, sometimes wear thin under the weight of making big ideas accessible, and occasionally border on the trite. Collins Sr. did have some success in crossing over between progressive and pop music, but historically, this kind of crossover has seen more strain than success. Most of the lyric weaknesses have started to fade for me, however, as I become more familiar with the instrumental, melodic, technical, and structural strengths of Dimensionaut as a whole.

Additionally, I am not sure that there is a place for Sound of Contact to cross over into. Traditional prog to pop cross overs feel a bit “adult contemporary” by today’s standards, and the video for this “single” does not do much to help this generalization. Still, when the Genesis-influenced bridge kicks in, Sound of Contact shines musically.

Dimensionaut leaves room for improvement, but it captures a rare combination of nostalgia, novelty, and authenticity that the current progressive rock scene needs. There is certainly enough of an indie prog audience that wants to see Collins Jr. succeed to warrant his band’s presence in the community. Point being, he is probably smart to invest in his father’s progressive fanbase, and is probably having a lot of rewarding fun doing it, too.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

My Bloody Valentine: the Nebulous Noise of "m b v"

My Bloody Valentine gave every reason to believe that the follow-up to the much-beloved 1991 album Loveless would never see release. For their vigilant fans, the reality of m b v was nothing short of earth-shattering. While I don’t have a decades-long investment in the band, my appreciation for My Bloody Valentine germinated in a slow simmer over the course of the last few years, which was culminating a few months before the album’s announcement. Fueled by my increasing interest, I was swept up in the excitement and ordered m b v through the official website at my first available opportunity.

All I really wanted was a CD, but this format was only available in an expensive bundle with an immediately downloadable version of the album. I was more than willing to wait until the CD arrived, but anticipation got the better of me. I downloaded the MP3s and burned by own copy to tide me over.  I pushed play, and:

nothing is by My Bloody Valentine on Grooveshark

It seemed like gibberish. I remembered how resistant Loveless was, so I tried to be patient.  Despite the many rave reviews it was garnering, however, I just couldn't seem to make sense of m b v. I felt a little disappointed, and I was uneasy when the CD came in the mail a few weeks later. I discovered, however, that the tracklisting for my burned copy was incorrect, and listening to m b v with the songs in the correct order was an entirely different experience.

As it turns out, m b v is more varied than its predecessor.  There are thunderous experiments that border on noise, and kicking off the album with a warp speed thrill ride was not representative of the album's overall statement.  There are also instances of relatively straightforward pop songwriting, but most of it falls somewhere between these two extremes.  With the correct tracklisting, the album coheres incredibly well, which is a tribute to songsmith and guitarist Kevin Shield’s sense of the album's larger arc. 

So, same songs, different order, and the album instantly clicked into place.  Although it was not exactly the equal of Loveless, m b v revealed itself to be a believable extension of My Bloody Valentine’s limited oeuvre. For m b v to be successful in my mind, it had to recreate the delicate, inverted balance between impossibly overdriven guitars and sighing, whispered vocals of its predecessor without duplicating it too literally. Generally, this is the case. The layer of overdrive and distortion on m b v is like a high-fidelity recording of David Bowie's Low as it might sound pumped through a set of 10 watt speakers. It is so pervasive that it almost becomes a soothing silence – perhaps the loudest silence possible. Within this cloud of fuzz lay sighing vocal lines whose exact language is all but obscured in the din.

Although it is enjoyable at quieter volumes, m b v, like its predecessor, is really meant to be listened to loudly. It makes more sense when it envelopes the listener, like the slowly swirling beauty of hyperreal nebulas might surround a lonely deep-space traveler. This enveloping characteristic seethes with sadness and melancholy and gives this iteration of My Bloody Valentine’s sound an introspective, almost meditative quality that distinguishes it from Loveless.  It still, however, captures a similarly unique and heart-crushing beauty that sets it among the better releases this year.