JOHN DUNCAN – Pleasure Escape (1985)

Review by: Jonathan Moss
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson


It was a cold day and Billy set off to his work at the graveyard. He had been working there for several years now, and, contrary to what pop-psychology would tell you, it had had no ill effect on him. He still was of a generally cheery inclination, had a small group of close friends and a larger group of trustworthy associates. He was happy with his job, the graveyard had a stereotypically gothic beauty and it gave him time to think. The cold weather on this particular day was annoying him somewhat, and obviously like any job it was still for the most part tedious, he wasn’t feeling particularly negative. This, of course, was about to change. 

He stumbled across a man, how shall we put it, having relations with a corpse. 

“What the hell are you doing?”, screamed Billy, who was vaguely aware of such goings on but generally preferred not to think about them, let alone be confronted by them. 

“Goddamnit! I was almost finished” shouted the necrophiliac. 

“Oh well” he said, removing himself and getting dressed, “I suppose I can always do this another time” 

“Hey man, I’m a libertarian” replied Billy, “I don’t care what you do, just do it in another graveyard” 

“Fair enough” replied the necrophiliac “I guess I do owe you an explanation. My name is John Duncan and I’m a field recorder and experimental artist. I was defiling this corpse sexually to make a comment on nihilism in modern society, probably”

“Ah”, thought Billy. So he was one of those crazy avant-gardists. Billy had heard about these fellows, doing obscene and immoral activities to prove a point about the decadence of society, maybe. Poor John Duncan probably didn’t even enjoy screwing that corpse, he was doing it out of some higher calling, in his own way he was a God. Of course, Billy wasn’t sure why John couldn’t have made his point in writing, as people like Schopenhauer, Comte de Lautreamont, Thomas Ligotti, and of course, Marquis De Sade had.

Well, Billy didn’t actually think that, he didn’t know who any of those people were. He did however contemplate calling the police, but decided to be true to his word and let John Duncan go, where he would record a film soundtrack, or something.

PELT – Ayahuasca (2001)

Review by: Christian Sußner
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

Ayahuasca, recorded by the experimental trio Pelt mainly consists of drones played simultaneously on different string instruments including a couple of traditional Indian instruments. Most of the time we hear the band meandering extensively through different chords and combinations, sometimes more harmonic, sometimes more noisy with long feedbacks. Rhythm instruments appear very sparsely but sometimes, in the more folky and song-oriented moments of the album, there are vocals.

I’m not very familiar with drone music. I occasionally enjoy the monolithic power of Sunn O))) and other similar bands that somehow originate in a “metal-tradition” but take a more experimental approach on the genre. But Pelt is different, rather spiritual than cathartic, carefully shifting between frequencies rather than operating with sheer volume or other sonic extremes. I went through the over two hours of Ayahuasca in one session. Twice. And it neither caused me headaches nor did I find it really captivating. They do create a meditative atmosphere which I enjoyed in some moments but a bit too often smells of patchouli and batik clothing, of not-so-revolutionary-anymore senior-hippies in Goa. In the end I was glad when it was over.

Adorno in his “Introduction To Musical Sociology” establishes seven types of music consumers. On one end of the scale there is the “expert listener” who has a deep understanding of the subject and therefore enjoys music by identifying, following and predicting the composer’s motives and techniques. On the other side of the scale he identifies the “entertainment listener” for whom music is more a backdrop for other activities. I doubt that Pelt have enough to offer to entertain the sophisticated “expert listener”. On the other hand it is difficult to imagine situations in which the “entertainment listener” could enjoy this stuff. And no, I’m not going to make the obvious drug reference here.

PRINCE – N.E.W.S. (2003)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Songs About Fucking… wait

It’s awfully weird listening to a dead man’s sex tape. On top of that, it’s weirder that this dead guy doesn’t have just one sex tape. He has over 55. All of which are graphic in their own way. Whether that way is wonderful or not depends on just how saucy you might be feeling this particular evening. I recommend you feel at least a Ragu before continuing.

Now, I’m assuming that everyone knows just who and what Prince (or whatever you want to fucking call him at this point) is. But in case you don’t know who he is, this is the lowdown:
Prince, born (and presumably died) Prince Rogers Nelson, is effectively the epitome of sex and all sexual things. For all intents and purposes, sex did not exist until the face of this grey Earth was graced with his time here, and we reproduced as if we were some sort of amoebous mass of glop previously. Although his first album, For You, didn’t exactly lead to him exploding onto the scene-it was more a dribble-he was able to cream the r&b/funk/soul/whatever you want to call his music scene with his sophomore self-titled effort.   At this point the tale becomes too nuanced for me to really care to tell you what happened, so I’ll skip to the record in question.

Okay, so the album here is N.E.W.S., which stands for North East West South, and, although this album’s cover features the planet Earth, there are no environmental undertones to be found.  In fact, this album is entirely instrumental. Also, it is his lowest selling album ever (approximately 30,000 copies sold). Also, there’s the greatest invention in the entire existence of the human race making great features all throughout the album: low quality midi instruments.  With all these factors, it just sounds like a total crapshoot, right?
Funnily enough, this album isn’t as much of a crapshoot as you might think.  Given, it isn’t the best thing since sliced bread, but it certainly isn’t awful. A big part of the reason behind why this album didn’t sell particularly well is because it is an instrumental record, and who wants to buy a record by a sex god if he doesn’t even vocalize himself in the bed of the music? Certainly not most people. Who wants to bed down for an hour with someone who doesn’t even make a sound, even if they finish?  

All joking aside, the real problem is the quality of the instrumentals.  In fits and starts, there are quite excellent moments instrumentally. It’s an early 2000s record (specifically 2003), and surprisingly it has the sort of uncomfortable production style I find common with most artists from the era, as if they aren’t quite sure where to go and put it in (the production, that is). So seeing Prince hit this trapfall is not a very good sign for the record at all. The atmospherics on the songs are good, they have a weird iciness to them, which is especially prevalent on the first track, “North.”  The instrumentals range from sex music to really interesting atonal jazz fusion breakdowns to really cool and funky jams to more sex music. Now, on those atonal fusion bits, they’re not technically “atonal,” but I don’t want to get into theory discussion very much.  

Basically the largest problem with this album is that it’s instrumental. Now, when it gets really interesting and mixed up in those instrumentals, as with the groovefests and the atonal jazz breakdowns, it’s really engaging. But so much of it is just a shitty porn soundtrack, honestly I swear I’ve heard excerpts from these songs before. And no, you can’t ask where and why, I discussed that the last time I reviewed something and it did not exactly go over very well.

Honestly, the worst part of the album is the fact that at points, it is REALLY fucking good! It’s got absolutely stellar musicianship and really can groove as intensely as Prince is known to be able to. But the droll sections of the album (a majority) fall that much harder because of it. It’s more than a little irritating to have some cool groove to become overwashed with those early aughts synths and have it return to the shitty porn soundtrack it-for some reason-so badly wants to be. This weird drift from sublime to subpar leads the album to be more than just a bland disappointment and it becomes just plain bad.

So is it worth actually listening to? I mean, for completists, of course it is.  And for those who are willing to give it a good honest chance because “maybe it’s not as bad as he says it is.” Or of course maybe you, the reader, have quite the affinity for porn soundtracks. Or maybe you are so tantalized by the concept of fusion jazz that you are willing to sit through ANYTHING to get another taste.

Otherwise, stay away.

Best track: I’m not listing out different timestamps for the goddamn songs.
Worst track: East

3/10

NEGATIVLAND – Dispepsi (1997)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

Dispepsi is an anti-consumerism, anti-commercial, anti-soft drink record by a group called Negativland. It alternates between sample heavy soundscapes and a couple straightforward songs. The more trad songs parody commercial jingles, which have thankfully gone out of fashion in the 21st century. All I will say about the parodies is that the basic melodies and singsongy vocals get their point across at the expense of enjoyability. Even the mixing on some of lead vocals sounds hollow. I couldn’t tell whether this was meant to reflect the soulless nature of jingles or just the band’s vocal talent; Dispepsi is my first and only Negativland record. “Aluminum or Glass” is the most honest attempt at an unironic tune, and even it sounds way too middle of the road to be memorable.
 
What Negativland is much more adept at is putting together sample-based music. Brooding sax and jittery dance music soundtrack the whole experience, showing that the band has way more musical talent on hand than they let on during the parody tracks. The group samples everything from TV spots, radio jingles, interviews with industry professionals, ad execs, testimonials from regular jacks like you and me to endorsements from famous jacks like Michael Jacks(on). This might all sound incredibly boring and pretentious, and while the latter is certainly true, the end result is actually dazzling –if a bit dizzying at times. The samples are mixed and matched and juxtaposed and repeated and repeated and repeated, but not TOO much. Five different interview samples will start and stop interchangeably, building and dropping threads, weaving them into a cohesive whole remarkable for sample based music, all the while underpinned by a kaleidoscope of shorter samples bursting left and right. It’s as if the Avalanches took a media studies course. It’s blunt and pretentious as hell, but boy does it ever keep your attention. 

SWANS – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

A Nihilist Anthem For The Saved, And The All-Too Damned

Big thanks to Charly for accidentally assigning me an album I’ve known for a while, and also an album which I like. This’ll be fun.

So, to get backstory on just what a Swans is, they are an experimental rock band from New York City, although they started as one of the most violent No Wave acts to emerge from the scene. Though they still do have some of the loudest shows ever-behind Sunn O))) and My Bloody Valentine-the way frontman Michael Gira presents the sonic formations of Swans makes this volume essential.

White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity came out in 1991, which was a very interesting time period for this project. No longer were they the No Wave powerhouses of the early 1980s. At this point, the seminal Children Of God was about 4 years under Swans’ belt. From 1987 to 1991, Swans put out two live albums, Feel Good Now (1988) and Anonymous Bodies In An Empty Room (1990), and one studio album, The Burning World (1989). While their live records were received about as well as live records usually are (that being, no one really cares besides the die hard fans) [that being said, check out Anonymous Bodies, it’s a truly great record], The Burning World more than a bit of  failure. See, after the unexpected popularity of their cover of the only Joy Division song most people know (need I even name it?)-and yes I do mean unexpected, it’s pretty shitty-the band was signed to Uni records. The album was produced by both Bill Laswell and Michael Gira, and had a drastic change in sound for Swans: not only were there ACOUSTIC instruments, but it took influences from things like the token, all too terrifying, all too assoicated with Yanni WORLD MUSIC, as well as touches of FOLK MUSIC. Gone was the aggression of their previous albums, save for one song (Let It Come Down), and in was the tacky Blind Faith covers and “sensitive” side of Gira and co-Swans-head Jarboe. The album was panned commercially and fairly critically, and Gira has said on record that he hates this album.

So with all that backstory, what is White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity? Is it any good? Could Swans actually pull out of the godawful nosedive that was The Burning World?

The answer to the last two is “yes” and I’m about to explain the first one.

Obviously, what ever bug that crawled into Gira’s ass at the time of recording The Burning World had since died and fallen out, as is easily told by the opening track, “Better Than You”. Of course, many veteran Swans listeners may cringe at the opening baby sounds, like I do whenever I listen to it, but so long as you can make it past, you are surely in for a treat. “Better Than You” is exactly what made Swans great, with a few added twists. The acoustic guitars are still here, but used more sparingly. Melody has become increasingly apparent, but back is the old aggression, and unrepentant, crippling nihilism we so expect from Gira’s sonic, lyrical and authorial expats. Better than you is a fairly driving piece, with loud, vibrant percussion, swirling synths, intense repetition, and, like many Swans pieces, features Gira’s droning semi-monotone, bassy voice. The second track, “Power And Sacrifice,” expands on similar motifs to “Better Than You,” but in a slower, more brutal context. Even two tracks in, and most listeners’ bodies will begin to feel the weight of this maw of hopeless depression. Thankfully, there is a slight repreive in the third track, “You Know Nothing”. It’s a ballad-y type piece, in something that you could say resembles a major key at times. I say slight, as the lyrics-which I’ll cover later-continue to weigh down on the psyche. Track four, “Song For Dead Time”, does what “Power And Sacrifice” did. It continues to explore the themes and areas established before it, to much better success. “Song For Dead Time” is a disturbing acoustic ballad, whose synth accentuations make Jarboe’s whisper of a vocal all the more unnerving. By this point, if you don’t want to have your day ruined, I recommend you turn the album off now, as it doesn’t get much darker than the first four tracks, but it certainly does not get any happier.

That is, except for “We Will Survive,” track 5 of the record. In my opinion its the weakest song on the album, as the repetition we know Swans so well for does not work here, which is a shame. All in all, its a bland, throwaway track. Thankfully, this is quickly fixed by the end of the first half of the album, the crooning denouncement of romance, “Love Will Save You”. The song is like a cascade of frequencies crashing down on your ears as the world around you falls in on itself, in all its shimmering majesty.

Now we come to the true highlight of the record, and the beginning of the second half, “Failure.” Although it is a very simple acoustic song, even simpler than “Song For Dead Time,” the atmosphere set up by the simple, four chord song is the pinnacle of this album, and even the album that follows White Light, Love Of Life (which is essentially a clone of this record, with some minor changes, but its still very enjoyable). There is something about the strumming pattern, the keyboard, and Gira’s voice blending so perfectly to create an anthem for hopelessness, a suicide swan song, a nihilist calling in fact. Far and away, “Failure” is the best song on the album, and its emotional weight is near indescribable. So, if nothing else, I implore you investigate that song.  

Sadly, this atmosphere is not well upheld, as the following track, “Song For The Sun,” is all too much like “We Will Survive,” and it has the same issues plaguing it, but it is even MORE out of place, as it is almost upbeat at times, which breaks the unrepentant hopelessness this album hopes to provide you with. “Miracle of Love” is a sort of second rate version of “Love Will Save You,” but is enjoyable in its own right. It sort of bridges the atmospheric gap between “Power And Sacrifice” and “Failure,” though, so its more than made up for in that respect. “When She Breathes” is another highlight of the album, and is sort of like the Jarboe variant of “Failure,” which is obviously welcomed by me. It has a bit more of a bite to it than Failure, so it is more angry than it is hopeless, but is still an amazing work. Sadly, the album ends on a dud and a half, as “Why Are We Alive?” sounds like a cheesy late 80s, average rock song in the Swans lens, and “The Most Unfortunate Lie” is a heavily watered down “Failure,” almost to the degree where it might be considered success.

The lyrics on this album are second to none, as is exemplified on “Failure,” and thats what makes so much of this album work, but also not work. When you have songs talking about how Love will save you from all damnation because you’ll be too stupid to realize you’re in hell, and how everything is meaningless and you will die an insignificant shit stain on the universe, you can’t have songs about how you will also make it through this dark time, no matter how well written they are. Another problem, as exemplified on “Why Are We Alive?” is how the lyrics completely conflict with the music being shared. I’m pretty sure the explanation is self explanatory for a song called “Why Are We Alive?,” but similar issues occur in “Song For The Sun.”

Overall, this album would be much much better if it had a more consistent tone and mood throughout, and if were able to keep up that crushing feeling so many of the songs offer, I might call this record a 9, or even a 10. But its inconsistencies in mood and quality drag it down. Now, I’m sure many of you will here readers like this record more than I do, so I encourage you to listen to it, but also don’t be surprised if it disappoints.

Best Tracks: Failure, Love Save You, Song For Dead Time, Power And Sacrifice

Worst Tracks: Why Are We Alive?, Song For The Sun

7.2/10

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – F♯ A♯ ∞ (1997)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

To my most alas, I know nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I have always taken band names such as this one as a good clue that I should probably steer clear. I also know very little about the social and political situation in 90s North America and its capacity to inspire apocalyptic-sounding soundtracks but I do find that this does not significantly detract from the experience of delving into F♯ A♯ ∞ (and after all, the end of time has been an universal concern since at least the time of the Gospels and especially so in the 20th century), so let’s dive right in.

The CD edition of this album is structured into three “movements” that each contain 3-5 sections with mostly appropriately minimalist sound, and it opens with the movement titled “The Dead Flag Blues”. A beautiful string arrangement is shortly complemented by some nihilistic voiceover about lonely suicides, corrupt governments, people on drugs and an admirable graphic depiction of life inside a machine that is breaking down – if you are a fan of that kind of lyrical exploration you might find it beautifully poignant. But even if you aren’t (and I most certainly am not) you can still appreciate the high quality of lyrical detail that might well surpass many other versions on this general theme by the cohesive picture it paints and the amount of actual information it delivers. Also notable here is that musical dynamic is used very competently and to a great effect, thus giving some spatial depth to the sound.

This first section of the movement segues into a claustrophobic and suffocating sounding sequence that is immediately preceded by a train rolling away from a station (maybe it took all remaining hope away) around the 8th minute and comes back with a beautiful mournful tune that evokes to me the image of Pink Floyd doing one of Mark Knopfler’s western-themed compositions, and is resolved with a bright waltzy rendering of the first section theme with some folky violin.

The second movement – titled East Hastings – opens with some traffic noises and a prominent street preacher voice but then transits into something else altogether – the winds of the hopeless black desert of abandoned nothingness that awaits Earth after a nuclear war, most probably. But wait, it is not completely void, there is a solitary voice here. The gentle voice of a mournful guitar in the distance. It gradually gathers confidence to deliver an uninterrupted phrase. Yes, this is our solitary hero whose steady steps through the desert we shall now follow. He feels like the hero of a tragedy who marches forth to meet his destiny with grim resolution because now even the desert wind chorus is backing him much like the chorus of a classical greek drama would. And when the rhythm section joins in we can conclude that he is now the leader of a whole marching ragged group of desert heroes who even add in their own voices at some point (via a lovely string arrangement). This epic pilgrimage through the desert possibly in Biblical times arrives at a similarly epic conclusion around minute 12, and after a short radio transmission sample the desert winds take over once again, stronger this time in the aftermath of the epic culmination. You know, maybe we can even agree that East Hastings refers to some city way in the East and the opening traffic and preaching took place on a busy marketplace instead of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver after which this movement is titled.

Providence, the third and final movement of this record, opens with a conversation in a bar on a busy street possibly, which possibly discusses what the preacher of the previous movement has said. You know, it is ordinary people losing faith now. In fact, I may well label this movement the personal introspection one because of the wonderful external-internal contrast that the beeping machinery samples of cruel objective reality vs the string arrangements of mournful internal monologue create. The subdued entrance of the strings may remind you of the way films are scored; however, the faint beeping sound still doesn’t vanish altogether and therefore it reminds you that outside of the internal strings monologue there is still the silence of the external world. This sound later develops into a more full one as some percussions and guitar join and the tempo increases, before coming to a stop around minute 11. There are some more sonically interesting solutions for the remainder of the track including some wistful chanting at the side of a waterfall or possibly on a very rainy day in the second half of the track but eventually it peters out into some actual silence before the arrival of the outro that is named after John Lee Hooker and includes some very intense metal bashing.

So bearing in mind that this record gets labelled as post-rock, experimental rock and instrumental rock, is it actually pretentious? Yeah, somewhat probably. But not really. After all, it is a record concerned with apocalypsis and it is concerned with it in a very humane way – taking into account the people living inside a machine, the street preacher in East Hastings, and perhaps even the internal monologue of one of the people conversing at the beginning of the third movement. I get the feeling that it was made mostly because of those people and those are the heroes that make their pilgrimage through the black desert of oblivion.

It also reminds me of something I once heard in Art History class – that 20th century art developed the position that art does not have to be beautiful, and that it decided to concentrate instead on the eternal suffering of the human soul. Now, the concept of the bleak beauty of human frailty is not something nowadays unheard of, and maybe this may prompt you to label the sound of F♯ A♯ ∞ beautiful. I will personally abstain from making such a statement but I am certainly glad that I got to experience the sonic richness of it during my pilgrimage through this album, even if probably no amount of coaxing will convince me to ever do it again.

Probably the only question that remains for me is what the title F♯ A♯ ∞ actually means but since apparently the vinyl edition of the album has a technically infinite running time due to the locked groove of the final track, I am going to assume that F sharp and A sharp are also some kind of clever reference to the music on the album.