. issue III : vii .
Free Transgénique is a collection of live performances (97-98) by avant-garde sound collective Napalm Jazz. Much more tuneful than their Cassettes, Free Transgénique is breaking down strictures in order to build less predictable, more profound architecture; Napalm Jazz begins with nuggets of sixteen songs, and the dismantling provisory agenda begins there. This specifically modular focus is a relief: the listener must digest thematic dissections for mere minutes — rather than a monstrously overgrown construction at one hour in length.
Napalm Jazz’s favorite motifs return, tailored to the heft of each exploration, and all with a snide, anempathetic twist (which also contributes to the relief of Free Transgénique).
Some highlights are the use of trills (with the flute used for ethereal, sharp sympathy to the sitar in “S.I.V.A.” and the saxophone’s wail like a netted, wounded animal in “Noiseberry Bush”); the weird softening or hardening to evoke concrete texture (as in “Abbatoir Cinq,” where the electronic attack is so brusque it clangs like metal, and “Pagan Chant,” where a pots-and-pans rigmarole sits atop a tinny wooden xylophone); Napalm Jazz’s trademark faltering music box produces a wonky weather-vane beat under cartridge processing with a nu-wave too-cool overlay (both in “Pastorale”); sentient, pained drones like operatic whales add a wholesome tragedy to the whole of Free Transgénique; and via the sprawling, boisterous cold-shoulder of the beat poetry alto saxophone, Transgénique is an odd marriage of camp and profundity: with a self-aware mordancy, it plays serious. Spoken and musical recordings are used to irreverent effect, as when the dapper intro to “Swank Jazz,” (“good evening, ladies and gentlemen”) skitters off into a glitch stutter, Gloria Estefan’s “Do the Congo” is wound-up and wound-down with a melodramatically absurd humor, a song that utilizes a sermon concludes with “Amen,” Tom Jones bursts out over grim sonic currents with “You Turn Me On!” and “Pastorale” uses obnoxious modulation to contort its singer’s flighty range. Nursery rhyme recordings, too, are used to provide a rather sinister narrative for the foley art that is Napalm Jazz’s brand of avant-garde and contemporary sound.
Another sonic theme is the redirective use of sinkholes or geysers, like the adulterous reflexivity between switchboard electric mishmash and the fussy flute of “S.I.V.A.,” a gender-bent LP in “Three Blind Mice,” the chanson singers’ flighty flight in “Pastorale,” and the screaming champagne pop train whistle in “High Rise.” These deft electronic wizards accomplish seamless attentional shifts with these tone warpings — and it’s a swift, sure, devastating way to remove the listener’s notional objectivity and formal categories. The attentional shift is dual — both in registering the newly clothed sound and their own fallibility. Tone warps would remove trust, too, but that’s the brilliant thing about Napalm Jazz — the listener has to trust the music in all its fickleness — because there’s nothing else.
More subtle than the tone warp is the blending, the transmutation of sounds so that the listener can’t be sure what they’ve heard of what they’re hearing. “Bucolique” vomits nailbiting bubbly sounds like chickens gossiping, “Swank Jazz” winds out funky playful instrumentals like a trumpeting kazoo, “Lawrence Block” blends concrete scrapes with the free sax and matches side-scroller punching glitch with B.B. gun pew-pews, and the revolutions in “Councilor Albedo” imitate clapping and the doppler drone of crowds. The entire “Pagan Song” explores this technique, sliding a scream to the knife’s edge of gritty apple-coring, changes woobly theramin-antennaed ufos to soprano kookaburra whistles, and modulating shards of hard howls (like a stuck ox and a moderate, lazing oboe). And “Intermede” seems to capture a Mesoamerican conch and a white-noise piccolo.
The saxophone supplied by Érick Dorion (on “Noiseberry Bush”) and Philémon Robitaille (on “Three Blind Mice” and “Lawrence Block”) is a smoky, squawky clinical thing separated by dark glasses and the avid, snappy meter of the Beat Movement. It’s impossible to know how seriously Napalm Jazz are taking the sax — whether its function is to isolate, to endear, to provide decoupage improv or painful camp, we (I) don’t know. But it does serve all and each of those functions, as in “Lawrence Block” we find both free jazzy eastern-flavored riffy bubbles and a soft pained depth of tone, and “Noiseberry Bush” channels both the prodigiously unfettered Karou Abe and the vocal slaughter of geese. Aimé Dontigny is brilliant on pick-up in “Noiseberry Bush,” spooling out resonance from the unstoppered notes in terribly trilling violent protests.
Transgénique also works to evoke the normative grandeur and average melodrama of cocktails and chanson, respectively. The tinkles of lounge pianos and black-tied gallery evenings are interrupted by chipmunk turntablism, stuttering hosts, and the paradoxical masculinities of Ahnold Schwartzenegger and Jacques Brel. It’s bizarrely proclamatory, not unlike the cartridgey combo bluff of Street Fighter (where a ninja winds up with a sound like an animal), the controlling romanticized romanticism of dapper chanson, and the evangelizing French where it’s not clear that the glamorous sentiment is for a sermon until he declaims bathetically “por Jesus!” and “hallejulah!”
And certainly Napalm Jazz pays desperately close attention to detail, which is what makes Cassettes such a devastating barrage. In Free Transgénique, behold the cute little blip-blip at 2:38 in “Three Blind Mice,” the soda pop lid nuance in “Napalm Noise Machine,” the fourth-wall destroying woosh woosh woosh of the orbiting turntable in “Swank Jazz,” the fuzzy note at 4:40 in “Stolen Starship Voyage,” the transitional touch-and-go decay at the end of “Pagan Chant,” and the small stately splinter of cocktail piano in “Noiseberry Bush.”
And in this wash of destroyed and mislaid sound, on occasion Napalm Jazz sublimates the noise into something musical for the listener’s brain to latch onto.
It’s stunning how much power this gives to Napalm Jazz — not only do they control the reactability of the stimuli, but the larger thematic chasms (e.g. ‘what is music?’) are set right in and naturally confront the listener. The glitches in S.I.V.A. begin as disruptions of the sitar and are transformed into percussive complements for the sympathetic drones and caravan plodding. “Stolen Starship Voyage” brings out a flailing ocarina cartridge tone with its “clank a clank a clank a clank!” And “Noiseberry Bush” blasts the music, burnt in the way that carousel music is pointed, planar, undiluted, and way too loud. Welcome to the Carnivale. And “Napalm Noise Machine” posits little forging noises that conflate metal and wood textures (e.g. anvil clank, or those little wooden sticks from elementary school music class?) and so obscure how ‘organic’ the music is. “Pastorale” is the deftest example of this: it toys with the singer’s ability to the point where it sounds most prodigiously dislocated in its inhumanity.
The sampling range of Transgénique is tremendous and ingenious, including Quebecois associates like André Gagnon, Diane Labrosse, Ikue Mori, and Martin Tétreault, and avant-garde fellowship from Derek Bailey, Wendy Carlos, Joëlle Léandre, Sainkho Namtchylak, Evan Parker, Yasumao Tone, and John Zorn. The best sample is the sitar of Ravi Shankar is “S.I.V.A.” — this is the only instance other than the found nursery rhyme material where a song is designed to expand, to augment, to pay tribute to a sample rather than to dissect or to shame it. For example, with some tongue-in-cheek work by Art of Noise (whence Tom Jones’ cover of Prince’s “Kiss”) we behold the not only the archaeology of musical revisioning and transference, but proto-sampling where pop culture didn’t know what to make of these broken boundaries and compromised authority. The Exploited, Slayer, Madness (“New Music Machine” turns “Our House” into a demonic compline), and Human League also provide some fun alt-cultural acculturated showmanship. And the sample of Miami Sound Machine (with Gloria Estefan) and “Do The Congo” is drawn out with real comedic windup in such a bom shicka bom bom do the conga! way, then deepened to slo-mo and basso profundo “DO THE CONGA.”
Sampling is just another way that Napalm Jazz isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall — not so different from the seconds of space in “Abbatoir Cinq” where the audience listens as Dorion switches from turntables to acoustic guitar. By starting from the sample, Napalm Jazz have to establish little and are able to simply start playing (around), effortlessly tempting the audience to pop-culturally anticipate and ready to see the sentiment turned sunnyside up.
Free Transgénique opens with “S.I.V.A.,” a glitching (Philémon on the turntables) duel-sitar and caravan tabla mosaic of perfect irregularities, shining sympathetic curtain lathes, and an otherworldly flute. The glitching becomes a percussive element where presence and absence are felt, and the omission of the sitar is really disruptive, like a physical taking away. And compressing electronics broaden drone notes from the eastern instruments, providing action in opposite directions as excellent turntablism sprawls out the sitar drone in every direction and another adept sitar continues at the same time: it’s dissociating! Napalm Jazz create sympathetic pitches … where they weren’t supposed to go. The shrill trill of the ney is frighteningly mechanistic; an audible screak is like a sharp human cry subverted into electronic tunnels. “S.I.V.A.” closes with a great transition: dragging and swallowed up, like a tired music box; veena drone and sitar strums finally wound down (a la Looney Tunes’ “that’s all folks”) and drained down the pin hole … only to come out in “Bucolique!”
“Bucolique” is a disgruntled war between instruments and stylization that is … not so bucolic. It’s a scary turntable piece (Dorion on turntables) with a frenetic sax, a slithering slinky sound, and big band 20’s longue or black-and-tan dancehall moments (a la Fletcher Henderson or the Cotton Club). The competition between the elements (governed by Dorion) is very disorienting: where the band is straining to get started, he tasks it, makes it heel, and returns to beats; where he blends the drums and horns; where he reduces “Bucolique” to one element at a time! The flute is the only regular sound presiding — but, mercilessly, Dorion creates downturns in the loop for a flat jolt at the end of each repeated phrase, and it’s like missing a step every three seconds for several minutes.
The last of Transgénique’s opening hat trick, “Three Blind Mice” features a kitschy LP of the nursery rhyme mutilated by Dontigny on turntables: he messes with the speed without pitch protection for a terrifying vocal transformation. Robitaille on alto saxophone screeches out sharp puffs like nails. “Three Blind Mice” winds the wind around for an ambient burden that’s painfully similar to Cassettes. Then the sax begins melismatic slides like nails across the whole damn chalkboard: howling and frantic, like a wounded animal or an angry mother. Appropriately, the song guffaws, “See how they run.” The background music looms with an awkward dignity, like wedding procession. And at the lyrics “they run away from the carving knife,” the pitch is lowered to dement his voice, as though he’s (of course) providing a play-by-play of the chase.
“Napalm Noise Machine” is quiet at first, discreetly ‘wound up’ with small agile air currents and metallic pacing. Then, with feather soft tickling, feedback bursts through in the tuning of a formless radio to “Our House” (“father wears his Sunday best”) — that is promptly swallowed by a sinkhole, and only the backup singers (“ohh ohh oh”) live to tell the tale. Dontigny and Robitaille outdo themselves on the turntables, transforming the atmosphere from monastic to videogame racecar, a shockwave with increasing pitch and pace to a pathetic squeaking (like cleaning a small spot on a window). Then grim currents upwell and Tom Jones’ “you turn me on!” emerges, comedic; then the “Do the Conga” foist slows into the eye-roller of a “DO THE CONGA” close.
Other standouts are “Noiseberry Bush” and “High Rise,” less meaty but maleficently impactful. “Noiseberry” is another found nursery rhyme recording: “Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush / So early in the morning. / This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes / So early in the–“ and elements start and stop in a real washboard blunt confrontation — how appropriate. The saxophone steps from beat to eastern to a morbid depth, trilling like the flutter of a heart. And the record quality, a sort of sonic crumble, evokes death throe rattles. It’s disturbing. “High Rise” recalls Sorry, Wrong Number or Psycho — it’s a terrible imposition of smothered screams, trains whistles, and slurping modulation. It’s simply heinous. Dontigny is on vocals providing this horror — live, on-stage? We instinctively look away from things we feel profoundly embarrassed for, and this is the listener’s reaction even hearing this remotely (where to look?). I can only imagine the audience forced to maintain physical presence with “High Rise,” stunned, aghast and mortified.
Free Transgénique’s most unique offering, “Pastorale,” has a wind-tasting weathervane beat, a fickle and paper thing; a soft crystalline tapestry, with the embouchure of wind and glass; and the agile Dontigny on turntables torturing a chanson singer by modulating her vocals extravagantly — it’s a tad snide: we know she would do that if she could.
Dontigny is like a 5-year-old delighted with a record player and his parents’ exquisite Montmartre vinyl: tee hee.
The immaturity of transforming the singer into a chipmunk and a baritone is so hyperbolic that we remember to laugh (as with “Councilor Albedo”). The cartridge overlay, triumphant and building in steps, ably dissociates the listener, and the only weak point of this song is that it cuts off rather abruptly.
In short, Free Transgénique is an excellent and sprightly offering, and each of its 16 tracks is no less relentlessly explorative than Cassettes — it’s merely not excruciating. Napalm Jazz are renowned for their live improvisational work, and here’s why; or, unlike Cassettes, Free Transgénique is the kind of record you can recommend to someone you don’t hate. … Highly recommended.