Thursday, February 25, 2010

Steve Tibbetts, STEVE TIBBETTS

Frammis, 1977; reissued by Cuneiform; available

9 tracks, 34:44

Steve Tibbetts is an acquired taste. Some of his work is incredible, while some is decent but unremarkable. This, his debut effort, falls squarely into the former category. Made when he was still a teenager (and originally released on his own label), this is a seamless piece of space rock bliss. Tibbetts claims he graduated while making this and had to sneak back onto his former campus to finish it (they had a Moog and a studio, after all!). The majority of the tracks are Tibbetts alone, but Tim Weinhold adds percussion on a few. Tibbetts is credited with "instruments", tape effects, vocals (VERY sparingly used), and engineering. While there are distinct songs, they seamlessly blend into each other to make two loose suites. Some tracks, like the folky "Sunrise" and "Interlude", focus on Tibbett's acoustic guitar with slight electronic coloration. On the opposite end, tracks like the trippy "Alvin Goes To Tibet" and "Gong" are entirely electronic, and fine examples of the genre at that! "Desert" and "How Do You Like My Buddha?" combine synths, tape effects and guitars in nearly equal measures to stunning effect. This is the place to start with Tibbetts; all of his albums have something to offer, but he was never quite this consistently incredible again. Who says a debut has to be rough? Kudos as always to Cuneiform for their continued dedication to keeping amazing obscurities like this in print!

Friday, February 19, 2010


Hyrax, 1980; reissued by Atavistic; available

14 tracks, 32:10

This would be the infamous "no wave operetta". I'm not sure who to credit this to; most sources list it as either Mars and DNA, Mars alone, or Sumner Crane. Some even list the band name itself as John Gavanti! Anyways, this bizarre concept album features a whole slew of New York no wave's finest. Sumner Crane of Mars does most of the singing; he also wrote the (included) libretto and contributes 3-string guitar(!), piano, and percussion. Also from Mars are Don Burg (see the Mars review for her other stage names; bass clarinet, abstract vocals) and Mark Cunningham (horns). Ikue Mori from DNA contributes strings and, on two tracks, percussion; on one of these tracks, DNA's Arto Lindsay and his brother Duncan also contribute percussion. The music itself is in a universe all its own. For the most part the tracks don't rely on guitar noise for their distinctive atmosphere, focusing instead on the assorted horns, bass clarinet, and string sounds. This actually is one of the closest things to free jazz in the no wave archives, since most of the arrangements are improvised around Crane's demented vocal performance, but it also veers towards avant-garde theatre. About Crane: His vocals are absolutely jarring on first listen, but they do grow on you. His style is best explained as a cartoonish monster/fake ethnic hybrid, coming somewhere close to a slightly more intelligible Joseph Spence. Given that the surprisingly coherent plot is a deranged remake of the classic opera DON GIOVANNI, his vocals are a perfect fit. However, I don't recall Don Juan seducing lionesses and grandmothers "in the beautiful autumn of life", but hey, artistic license. You really have to love an operetta with the classic lines "Oh Ancient Ocean!/You are nothing!/Vast you may be!/Next to me what are you?/I am beautiful pink and you are stinky green!" Did I mention the first thing John does, upon waking up in his volcano, is drink a glass of lava? Yep, you read that correctly. From that point on, Gavanti brags, boasts, travels the world, seduces literally EVERY female that catches his attention, is reunited with his long-lost assistant John Yellow, has his arm torn off by a white statue (but he has a spare at home, so it's alright!), and finally rides off into the sunset with the grandmother. Naturally, it's not quite as simple as that, but that's the general plot anyway. Burg contributes surprisingly tender lead vocals to "Mirror Mirror", and the track with the Lindsay brothers is a fairly straightforward samba piece, but the rest is pure avant-garde heaven for any experimental rock fan. It's worth noting that ths was recorded at Sear Sound studios, an all-vacuum-tube-equipment studio (most famous for being where Sonic Youth later recorded SISTER). You should definitely get the Mars and DNA retrospectives first before diving into this, but it certainly belongs in any good no wave/experimental collection.

Please visit the following link for Mark Cunningham's insight on the album, as well as some tidbits about the fan video (!):

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fluence, FLUENCE

Pôle, 1975; out of print

3 tracks, 37:16

It's been a while since I reviewed something from Pôle Records! Fluence is essentially Pascal Comelade, assisted by different folks on different tracks. Side one consists mostly of the wonderfully titled "A Few Reasons To Stay - A Few Reasons To Split". Featuring a guest appearence from none other than Heldon's Richard Pinhas, this starts with a melodic and soft synth pattern that is soon accompanied by Fripp-esque guitar and what may be a treated guitar loop or a droning organ. It's a classic example of French-style '70s electronic rock, easily ranking with the best of Heldon, Ilitch, and Pôle's other artists. Finishing side one is "Barcelona Tango", featuring Ben Soussan and Ph. Besseme (unfortunately, only Pinhas is credited with any specific instrument; even Comelade's contributions are left unspecified). This is a short jazzy number, certainly enjoyable enough but very much out of place. "Schizo" occupies all of the second side, and it's every bit as cosmic as "A Few Reasons...". Comelade is assisted here by G. Ibanez and J.P. Barreda. Starting off with an electronic drone and several inventive synth vamps, it drifts along blissfully, soon accompanied by some truly soaring guitar. About midway, it gets a bit more chaotic, with the synth and guitar sounds battling it out over the drone to the very end. This too is a great song, and the obscurity of this release is a true shame. As with most things Pôle, a reissue is long overdue. Comelade continued to make interesting music and is still quite active today. His other work is very much worth checking out, but most of it is fairly hard to find. There IS a compilation called BACK TO SCHIZO (1975-1983) which has a five-minute excerpt from FLUENCE, but it's hard to recommend due to its haphazard edits and poor sound.


Zapple, 1969; reissued by Ryko with bonus tracks; available

Ryko: 7 tracks, 61:32

Apple, 1970; reissued by Ryko with bonus tracks; available

Ryko: 9 tracks, 65:36

I'm pretty sure you know who Yoko Ono is if you're here, so let's go straight to the reviews!

First up is the second of her three experimental albums with John Lennon. Coming at a time when Ono was a pariah, LIFE WITH THE LIONS didn't help her public image one bit. This album has the honor of being one of the most genuinely unlistenable albums I own, while also being one of the most conceptually interesting. "Cambridge 1969" is a bold opener: twenty-six and a half minutes of Ono freely vocalising over feedback, with slight sax and percussion by Johns Tchicai and Stevens towards the end. It also occupied all of side one. Side two is no more accessible. The sweet acoustic "No Bed For Beatle John" is up next to the self-explanatory "Baby's Heartbeat" and "Two Minutes Silence"; all were recorded in the hospital during Ono's troubled pregnancy. It's rather touching and sad to know that the baby didn't make it, which gives both the heartbeat and the silence that much more impact. The LP proper ends with "Radio Play", which is Lennon and Ono conversing while changing radio stations, even flipping around with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" at one point. Bonus tracks "Song For John" and "Mulberry" are returns to the sweetness of "No Bed For Beatle John". It's not something you put on every day, but as a work of art, this album merits investigation.

PLASTIC ONO BAND (not to be confused with Lennon's identically named album) is much more enjoyable overall. Five of the tracks feature a lineup of Lennon, bassist Klaus Voormann, and Ringo Starr; the other, "AOS", is a rehearsal recording from '68 featuring Ornette Coleman's quartet. "AOS" is the most out-there track here, with Coleman's trumpet coaxing Ono into a frenzy. Bassists Charlie Haden and David Izenzon team up with drummer Eddie Blackwell to maintain the wild feeling. The rest of the tracks are very ahead of their time, predicting all manner of post-punk mutations down the line. Starr and Lennon sound like they're having the time of their lives NOT sounding a jot like the Beatles! Lennon skronks and skrees to his heart's content while still finding time for trancier modes of expression, while Starr surprises with consistently innovative drumming, be it fast-paced rock pounding or motorik-esque pulsing. "Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City" and "Paper Shoes" both feature Ono's use of processed vocals over nearly krautrock soundscapes, while "Touch Me" and "Why" rival ANY '90s noise rock act for ferocity. The long "Why Not" is about equally divided between these extremes. Ryko put three bonus tracks on here. "Open Your Box" is a funky little number, originally intended for a single. "Something More Abstract" is a short snippet, and "The South Wind" finds Lennon and Ono improvising with acoustic guitar and vocals. This is the truly essential Ono purchase.

Check back for a review of UNFINISHED MUSIC NO. 1: TWO VIRGINS soon. This little gem is a collage piece that, while savaged at the time, is the better of the two UNFINISHED MUSIC albums. There's also THE WEDDING ALBUM, which didn't impress me very much, and the wild live albums LIVE PEACE IN TORONTO 1969 and SOME TIME IN NEW YORK CITY*. Anything else credited to Ono and Lennon (though not necessarily to Ono solo) is FAR more mainstream. Ono's massive FLY deserves special attention as well.

*This double LP features a side of Lennon/Ono/Mothers of Invention jams!

Friction, ATSUREKI

Pass, 1980; reissued at least twice, most recently by Pass; available

10 tracks, 40:40

Friction was formed circa 1978 as a sort of Japanese answer to no wave. Bassist/singer/occasional guitarist Reck was in an early Teenage Jesus & the Jerks lineup and drummer/saxophonist Chiko Hige performed with the Contortions, so they definitely knew what they were doing! On their debut LP (which means "friction" in Japanese) Reck and Hige are joined by guitarist Tsunematsu Masatoshi. Sounding closer to Theoretical Girls or the Contortions, this is the more accessible side of no wave. That being said, this is a great listen and a unique take on the no wave aesthetic, with hints of Captain Beefheart and European post-punk. Every song offers something unique so the album never gets boring. It's also neat how the drumming sounds influenced by the motorik beat; Friction can lock into a groove and not let go, while at the same time adding plenty of skronk. The vocals are a mix of Japanese and English. Standouts include the manic "Cycle Dance" (with excellent drumming and sax; Hige must have double-tracked), noir-ish instrumental "No Thrill", and the epic (almost seven minutes!) closer "Out", which sounds like a collision between Soft Machine circa THIRD and Sonic Youth's first EP. The sound is perfect, thanks to producer Ryuichi Sakamoto(!). Good luck finding this, but snag it on sight! Friction is still going strong, with Reck and Hige stil on board. All of their material is consistently good, but the early material is best. A few equally intriguing live shows from '78 and '79 are out there, featuring rawer versions of ATSUREKI's tracks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hugh Hopper, 1984

CBS, 1973; reissued by Cuneiform; available

Cuneiform CD: 7 tracks, 48:04

The late (and greatly missed) Hugh Hopper's first solo release, 1984 is in many ways one of his boldest and most fascinating works. This was a period when Soft Machine was devolving into basic jazz-rock; Robert Wyatt had already departed, and Hopper would depart himself the same year 1984 was released. According to Hopper's liner notes, CBS was enthusiastic about his solo album until they heard the music, forcing Hugh to take out a bank loan to produce it. Then again, a loose instrumental concept album about the Orwell novel does seem like a strange commercial prospect. Truth be told, calling it a solo album is slightly misleading; on most tracks Hopper is accompanied by a truly great choice of players, ranging from Pye Hastings and Gary Windo to Lol Coxhill and John Marshall. All of the tracks take their names from the ministries in the novel. The four shorter pieces are fairly accessible, with "Minipax I" being the most traditional-sounding thing on here. "Minipax II" has backwards and sped-up trombones in the mix, along with Hopper playing comb and paper, while both "Minitrue" and "Minitrue Reprise" are atmospheric miniatures. The two long tracks are probably what made the label nervous. "Miniluv" finds Hopper truly solo for nearly fifteen minutes. Obviously influenced by Terry Riley (he admits it in the liners), this is a moody loop-based piece for bass, percussion, and mellophone. Constantly shifting and twisting over its length, this is a natural progression from Hopper's experimental Soft Machine contributions. Good luck figuring out what instrument is making which sound! "Miniplenty" is just over seventeen minutes long, and it finds Hopper and Marshall exploring similar experimental terrain. This time, Hopper's heavily modified voice and what sounds like bells accompany his bass playing, which truly sounds not a jot like a bass for the majority of both extended tracks. They're excellent examples of dark ambient, and while they contrast with the shorter pieces for the most part, this is a delightfully different experience taken as a whole. The domestic CD reissue has "Miniluv Reprise" as a bonus, which is a shorter and more rock-oriented version of said track featuring an extended lineup. The Japanese CD features further bonus demo material, which I haven't heard.