Carrot Recorder. Bean Shaker. Pumpkin Triangle. Radirimba. Gurkenficke with variable vacuum hole. Krautscratch. Celery Guitar. Bohrmaschinenlauchzellerpropeller. I think I’m in love.
I bought A Sceptic’s Universe about 2½ years ago and it continues to haunt me to this day. Of all the records that I have listened to, while this is not my absolute favorite, this is the one that I am the most obsessed with. This obsession got up to the point where I wrote a 5 or 6 page paper about it for one of my classes. Sometimes it sounds obnoxious and sometimes I think it’s the greatest recording ever but I’d say that, simply based on the fact that I can’t help but come back to this album every now and then, A Sceptic’s Universe has done its job. Because of my longstanding obsession with this album, this post might be longer than usual. I knew I was going to write about this band eventually when the blog started so I might as well get it out of the way while, fresh out of college, I have the time and energy to write this.
Spiral Architect is a band based in Oslo, Norway that is named after a Black Sabbath song. They picked this name because, according to bassist Lars Norberg, the name “reflects the ‘spirit’ of the band, musically as well as ideologically.” Other than a demo, A Sceptic’s Universe is the only thing that Spiral Architect had released… and they released it back in 2000… 7 years after they had originally formed… and supposedly, they’re still active, working on a second album. The band members are active in various other projects, keeping them quite busy, so this second album could take a while if it will ever be released at all.
This music falls under the category of “technical metal.” For those who have never heard of the term, imagine the crazy burst of virtuosic musical energy of a band like Mahavishnu Orchestra coupled with a metal sensibility and you’ll get technical metal. Ron Jarzombek, who I wrote about a while back, is an example. What makes this band stand out in my mind is the weird and mysterious mixing job. Let’s face it: from a professional sound engineer’s perspective, it’s very badly mixed; the drums have no power and the guitars, in addition to having timbres that sound a little off, are practically buried in the mix. Yet it somehow manages to sound fine for this music. Also, the bass is WAY up in the mix for no reason. Unlike most rock and metal recordings, where the bass is sort of subdued, you can actually hear everything that the bass does here, including the sounds of the strings when you slide your fingers across. Our ears are accustomed to the bass being low and subtle in a rock/metal mix but that’s not the case here so it has some shock value. But this bassist is very good; I’m guessing he’s jazz trained since he’s not just plucking the strings like a normal rock or metal bassist would and, other than being technically gifted, his phrasings for the basslines are beautiful so one would be quick to forgive the weird mixing. One reviewer on Encyclopaedia Metallum theorized, “it is just engineered to fuck with your mind and drive you to the very edge of sanity.”
If you are not very familiar with technical or progressive metal or don’t listen to dense or spastic music like this often, I recommend treading these waters with extreme caution but an open mind too, otherwise you’ll miss out on some very interesting music. Here is the first song that I have heard by them, “Insect,” a song that compares the intelligence of an average man to, well, an insect:
When I first heard “Insect,” I was floored. I didn’t know what to expect with the synth intro. Then suddenly, there were guitars playing diminished arpeggios and rushes. Then suddenly, RANDOM 10-SECOND JAZZY BREAKDOWN! And…what? You mean to tell me we’re not even a minute into the song yet? I couldn’t help but stick around since the music was so crazy and was really going places. I think that “Insect” and “Conjuring Collapse” are the wildest tracks on the album. Here’s “Conjuring Collapse”:
And here’s something that’s tamer, “Moving Spirit”:
As you probably already figured out, the music is really dense and spastic. I remember reading somewhere that a truck driver got a migraine while listening to this record on the job, two minutes or so in, because the music was too much (I should add that he only listened to Top-40 type music so that might explain it). I don’t want to simply say that it’s “complex” because that is too reductive and that is a word that people often use to describe this kind of music when they can’t think of anything better to say. But the music is very dense and can be difficult to take in all at once. It’s got it all: weird guitar timbre, fast passages, atonality, unexpected breakdowns, polyrhythms galore, and π/e time signature (okay I’m exaggerating but I honestly don’t know what time signature we’re in over half the time with these guys). There is a wide range of emotion in the music and just because you can’t pick out one among several does not make it emotionless. It’s like a musical embodiment of the chaos theory: it sounds like pure cacophony at first but after a while, you’ll realize that there is a method to the madness.
Thankfully, the music is not just spastic craziness all the time. The band is polite and merciful enough to let us bask in familiar and easier-to-digest musical elements from time to time. An example is “Cloud Constructor” but I couldn’t find a Youtube video for it that is available in the US. The next best example is “Occam’s Razor,” which, other than being the theory that the simplest explanation is often the most plausible one, represents the soft and gentle pause between “Moving Spirit” and “Insect.”
With all that said, this band is not for everybody. I would certainly not recommend this record to a casual listener or someone who only likes music that “gets to the point” so to speak. I would only recommend this record to people that like creative and challenging music with a heavier edge and who have patient ears. This is easily one of the most challenging records that I have come across.
I can’t tell if these guys are geniuses or crazies. It’s definitely one or the other because no other kind of person would even dare to write, play, or record/mix music like this.
Hey, all! It’s been a long time since a blog post has been made here. I can’t speak for the other contributors but I’ve been waist-deep in paperwork for my last semester of college! I’m not done yet but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I’m out, I’ll make a better effort to contribute. Unfortunately, I’m still knee-deep in work and this entry is being done largely out of procrastination so it will be short and sweet.
Here is something that I’ve come across entirely by chance: Henri Salvador. Salvador was born in French Guiana in 1917 and learned how to play guitar by imitating Django Reinhardt records. He started out by accompanying other guitarists but went on to have his own (really long and really diverse) career, from the 30’s until his death in 2008. He had recorded some of the first French rock and roll songs but he had stated that he does not like the genre and he often refused to discuss it. It is said that his song “Dans mon île” was a huge influence on Antônio Carlos Jobim, who, in turn, formulated the bossa nova style. In the 60’s, Salvador had a string of novelty hits, including songs like “Zorro est arrivé”, “Venuise”, “Juanita Banana”, and many others. In the 70’s, he became a children’s singer whose gimmick involved Disney films. Personally, I don’t really like music like what Salvador usually writes; I think that albums of his like Chambre avec Vue are way too sappy for my taste. But his novelty song output is just too much fun to ignore. His novelty songs are so perfectly mad and the video editing is hilarious.
He is still popular in the Francophone world and in Brazil. He was awarded the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit in 2005 for his influence on bossa nova. His nickname in France is “Monsieur Joie de Vivre.”
Here are a few of his songs, all comedic and perfectly cornball:
“Zorro est arrivé”, which is considered to be a hit for him. This was basically an adaption of “Along Came Jones” by The Coasters):
“Juanita Banana”, which took me a while to get over:
I’m getting back to work.
“I rap – but not that bullshit they’re putting down now. I play fundamental beat music.” – George Coleman, a.k.a. “Bongo Joe” in 1991
Fundamental beat music. Fundamental beat music… Keep that in mind as you listen to this:
Can’t get any more fundamental than that… It’s a style that’s so raw that it makes Sun Ra sound conservative.
George Coleman, not to be confused with the saxophonist who didn’t have the nickname “Bongo Joe,” was born in Haines, Florida in 1923 and, after working odd jobs and serving in the Army Air Corps, ended up in Houston in the late 40’s. At the time, Houston was known as “Baghdad on the Bayou” among black people (yes, Baghdad was actually a great place to live at one point) because of great job security and a bustling social scene with a thriving music scene to match. It was all so exciting that George Coleman wanted to be a part of it. He asked a local bandleader to play drums in his group, despite never playing the drums before. He was rejected not because he couldn’t play but because he didn’t have his own set. He tried solving the problem by getting together some tin cans and some oil drums and calling that his drum set. Obviously that didn’t work but his career took off nonetheless.
He would make his living by traveling to Galveston, the tourist capital of Texas, and playing his “drum set” near tourist attractions. He actually made a decent living at it. During the off-season, he would play in Houston. This continued for 15 years before settling in San Antonio, where he played at more prominent tourist attractions. He would still travel around Texas, though. He released his only album, Bongo Joe, in 1969 on Arhoolie Productions and the song “Innocent Little Doggie,” the first song that you heard in this post, became an underground hit in Texas and even in England where the BBC “aired it repeatedly.”
He also played piano. Before Texas, he lived with his older sister in Detroit, where he was exposed to the jazz scene. He took up the piano and played with local musicians, including Sammy Davis Jr. Apparently, he played well enough to get invited to play in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival nine times, including one time where he played with Dizzy Gillespie. I couldn’t find much else on that but who cares? It’s not fundamental beat music!
Bongo Joe is music at it’s most fundamental and most expressive, comparable to Moondog and Ray Sipe (who, as you so vividly remember, I already wrote about on this blog). Some dismiss him as a novelty act but while he does come off as such, the music is pure, inspired, and honest (as you could tell from the title “I Wish I Could Sing” the opener for Bongo Joe). The lyrics are truly unique to Bongo Joe; they express his own philosophy of life by telling some weird stories. He expresses the cannibalistic bitterness of man toward his fellow man through is quick wit and biting tongue. I would say that he is a pure musical act that just happens to have a sense of humor. “Science Fiction” is quite poetic and philosophical:
And “Transistor Radio,” the story of a man who steals transistor radios.
I’ll leave you with one of my personal favorites, “Dog Eat Dog.” I like this because I have no idea what the hell is going on but only Bongo Joe would come up with this.
Special thanks to YouTuber “playerpianoJH”!
It’s odd to imagine machines playing music beyond human capabilities before synthetic sound and computers. This of course wasn’t the first time we had performable music played by non-human entities (mechanical orchestras, anyone?), but the whole culture of musique concrète (music that exists as a single “performance” by a machine or recording) developed around tape manipulation and analog synthesizers, and flourished when digital techniques became advanced and accessible (see my previous article on Easley Blackwood for examples of this era). However, there was a remarkable predecessor to this and all electronic music that must be discussed: the player piano. You can probably remember the player piano from period pictures of the late 19th century, a relic of la belle époque, quaint and lacking in depth. While it’s true that the majority of music for the instrument was either transcriptions of popular classical works of the day or forgettable dance music, it contained a secret power. Beginning in the mid-1910’s (with the above piece by Stravinsky) modernist composers started to see the instrument for what it was: a vehicle for superhuman music, unplayable by normal people.
The Three Pieces by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella are a beautiful demonstration of the new capabilities of this mechanical beast. The Prelude features fast chord jumps that would be impossible to play by three people at the speed required, and also has a chord that would require hands as wide as your legs are long to play. The Waltz uses a melody that stretches across several octaves. The ragtime seems more fitting for exploding cars than dancing people, or maybe somebody attempting to swat flies with a refrigerator door. In a way these pieces are musical jokes, because anybody listening to them would scoff at their byzantine player requirements and the loud and abrasive tone of the instrument, which was attractive to composers at the time because of how it fit into the current craze for “grotesque” music. Casella was no stranger to massive stacked chords, either, and these pieces are chock-a-block with gigantic piles of notes. In the same spirit but taking the unplayability (and some would say unlistenability) up a few levels is this absurd piece by Hans Haass, who I had never heard of before finding this piece:
I personally feel that the work is better art if one looks at the piano roll than if they listen to it (I imagined a scenario where Haass glanced at his patterned wallpaper one day and declared “This is the future of music!”). There were many other pieces (all availabe on the same YouTube channel) but it is necessary for us to jump ahead a few decades. Enter Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who had been exiled to Mexico after some time tinkering in the murky waters of modern music. Unsatisfied with musicians’ inability to play his exceedingly difficult music, he discovered the player piano and its ability to play extremely complex rhythms very quickly. He got himself a manual piano roll punching machine so he could make his own pieces, and then proceeded to write some 50 studies for the instrument during the next 40 years, entirely in seclusion in Mexico. When he was rediscovered in the late 70’s he was lauded by the likes of György Ligeti as one of the greatest composers of his time, and it’s pretty hard not to appreciate his work, in its intellectual aspects and its emotional and entertainment qualities. All of them are worth investigating, but here I’m just going to feature my current favorite:
The use of harmony, the captivating and totally original approach to rhythms, and a number of truly miraculous moments make this piece a real joy, and is a great showoff work for the instrument. As the description notes, all modern player piano compositions stem from Nancarrow’s work, and the channel features a number of contemporary works by many interesting composers. Because of the many wonders to behold on this channel (you really should get cracking on the Nancarrow studies) I’ll leave you with a particularly funny piece by virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin that transforms a moldy oldy piano lesson staple into something wholly sinful. Have fun and don’t bang on normal pianos too hard to replicate these works. You might hurt yourself.
At least I think it would be called “avant hard.” I don’t know. How would you describe this sound?:
“Avant Hard” is how they describe it but you never know. For example, this guy describes it as “cat-rock” for no apparent reason.
Named after a computing function, Add N to (X) is a three-piece experimental electronica band from London. Their music is played almost entirely on analog synthesizers, as the members of the group are apparently aficionados of old and proto-electronic music, with influences ranging from Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to Iannis Xenakis to Can. Their sound is very flexible and can sound either very harsh or very beautiful. Sometimes their music is somewhere in between but normally, the sound is very harsh. It is quite trippy. The band carries the aesthetic of the analogue synth with them, in their music and their album covers, particularly the cover of On the Wires of Our Nerves. The band has been given offers from major labels but they’ve turned them down and signed on to Mute Records, a large, respectable indie label. The first song that I posted was certainly quite harsh but here is a more relaxing tune.
In addition to the analog synthesizer aesthetic, their music mainly tackles themes of fetishism. They have also created some pretty explicit music videos, which can be just as outrageous as the music itself (in a good way, of course). Here is one of them: “Metal Fingers in my Body,” which pretty much explains itself. (Warning: slightly NSFW but you probably figured that out from the title)
Or perhaps “Plug Me In,” which features actual porn stars and actual female nipples. (Warning: actually NSFW. In fact, I am surprised that the Youtube police didn’t take it down yet)
Unfortunately, they are no longer active. They’ve had a good ten year run but after things started to pick up with their last album Loud like Nature, one of the members was overwhelmed by the pressures of touring and either quit or got fired. The tour was still done with the other two but then the band broke up afterwards.
It had been dragged in the patchouli ditch, overstuffed by an uninvited foreign exchange war, and came up from the drink in a rented hangover costume two weeks behind in payments. It was 1969 and, though the American Industrial Music Conglomeriana wouldn’t admit it for the better part of a decade, the Psychedelic movement was pretty much over. As with all outgrowths of 60’s drug culture the original point had been lost and accessible and well-known headliner groups (such as the Doors) had catapulted what started as subterranean and murkily understood by its inventors into that ever-so-dangerous “clean-cut” realm. And at the peak of the buzz two groups attempted to take things up a level: Vanilla Fudge (now considered a seminal cross-genre band and very much worth investigating) and Alexander’s Timeless Bloozband.
I don’t know who Alexander is, or the contents of the Bloozband. I don’t want to know. It would diminish the magic. Careening wildly between a genuinely vervy psychedelic jazz blend (such as in the above Horn Song) and a Bouncing Betty in the form of back-of-the-basement blues revivalism, I’ve never heard a record capture a genre’s collective direction quite like this one. I can’t be sure if most of you will like every track you hear. That may be part of my point. Actually, this first track is probably the best, with a neat grove and harmony, and less boozy than most late psychedelia. However, many other tracks (all available for download on Amazon) smack of a different beast. And all are defined, alpha and omega, by Alexander.
I can’t imagine a better descriptor than “big floppy lawnflamethrower.”. His voice is a hairball expo on karaoke night, almost too lovely to behold. From what little information I was able to gather on the group they played venues all around SoCal in the late sixties. I’ve never heard of any of them (Greasy Slew Duck Club?!), so I can only assume they were flattened by Alexander’s visionary warble.
In a way this record is a testament to just how much the psychedelic movement owed to the blues. Perhaps if this record had sold better people would have latched onto this notion. I think a big part of why nobody did is a central conceit to the genre, in that most psychedelia is about as bluesy as the Beatles. One thing is for certain, though: Alexander was at least channelling the spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and every whiskey he ever played footsy with. He understood the Bloozband for what it was: a vehicle to let his wobbly soul dance. Perfection is out of the question.
I apologize for rambling, but maybe I was trying to skirt the real reason this record exists, and has to exist. It is the last genuine psychedelic blues statement of its time, and between the maybe-once-rehearsed ensemble effort, a recording quality that suggests a garage at the bottom of the Hudson, and the incomparable Alexander, we realized that it couldn’t go any other way. It’s both glorious and disarming. The glory is obvious, but the disarmament comes when the weight of the thing comes crashing to our shoulders. Did the gods bless this as a living funeral, or was Alexander really as clairvoyant as I hope he was? Was it planned from the start to mark the death of the psychedelic music in LP form? Is this what a death rattle plays on the guitar?
I see now why the Bloozband is Timeless. The gutteral cry of humanity’s search for answers in the face of oblivion can never be silenced. Alexander’s unique art merely made it timely.