The Rummage

Tag: Tortuous

. issue XXIV : ii .

. artist : cul de sac .
. album : immortality lessons .
. year : 2002 .
. label : strange attractors audio house .
. grade : b plus .


Artisanal neo-psychedelic group Cul de Sac has been around since 1990, and they know what they’re about. A composer’s art-rock band, Cul de Sac make music various in genre, steadfast in ambition and boundless in scope. Immortality Lessons is an hour-long tape from a live show at a radio station in 1998, and you’ve never heard anything more “live.” More than any song, musician’s good-day or other unit of performative success, it’s the powerful aura exuded palpably, the made-manifest supersaturated creative presence, the pregnant evocation of outward facing energy that fastens the listener on Immortality Lessons and submerses them.

Audible are the concrete paraphernalia of the stage, preparatory rustles and the pre-emptive clack of drumstick, but also audible are the nerves and the sweat and the physical momentum — the theatricality of “the moment” of embarkation. It’s stunning how the listener can feel Cul de Sac start to turn on the same cog.

As the centerpiece, the Middle Eastern-influenced guitar of Glenn Jones leads the way through tantalizing, meandering, seductive soundscapes with a directed charisma like an animal stalking its prey, but it’s the nuance of Jon Proudman on drums is what makes the emergent nature of the album so evident. There’s a fragility to his playing by which you can tell that Cul de Sac are on the move, expanding, and fighting the urge for any sort of completeness.

It’s hard to tell what’s the band pulling back to regroup and what’s an especially minimal composition; however, one does have the sense that everything Cul de Sac does emerges from this space of tomfoolery, collective resolution and chemistry, and that means that there’s no difference between the two. Large swathes of songs will pass without a coherent pattern … until suddenly they lock into it. As a result, we have the impression that the album breathes, and that it’s something emergent — struggle, group, fall apart, regroup.

But this meandering is nothing less than totally engaging, and so it is that Cul de Sac presents one of the clearest visions of creative cohesion which also happens to instantiate much confusion and dislocation. As a sonic parallel, there’s plenty of sympathetic accord — Immortality Lessons is an exemplar — but also weird discordant incidents that are folded back in or vindicated by a later completion (for example, Robin Amos’ keyboard seizure in the title track).

Immortality Lessons sure doesn’t feel like an hour. I wouldn’t say we’re having fun, precisely; it’s the experience of hanging on someone’s words, of disembodiment, of immersion, of tethered to. It’s refreshing to find music so compelling.

I’m new to Cul de Sac, and apparently they’ve done a lot better than this, so I can’t wait to go back and see what I’m missing. But I also love how understated a non sequitur this is, how you’re not sure where it came from or what it’s supposed to do or if it’s successful. It just exists.

by Brittany Tracy


. issue XVI : viii .

. artist : trans/human .
. album : the wider .
. year : 2012 .
. label : blackest rainbow .
. grade : a minus .


The recalcitrantly-titled The Wider (wider than …? should we listen … wider? does humanity aspire … wider?) is a dithering tumult of horror film excerpts (specifically, the screams), terrific and charged ambience, the intent jangle and posture of ceremonial dance, and rotary, droning beats that slough with the molten crawl of slag. The cover photo by Joe Blanchard is also incorrigible and daunting: it seems to be an encaustic wallpaper-peeling hell of primrose and sarcoline, waxy ectoderm melting in strips to reveal the cartouche of Mama Bear and Papa Pig, dressed with ruffed sleeves, a checkered apron and a top hat; some children’s book of unthought grotesquerie. It’s also inked with scribal-sacrosanct vermillion; with red in all the center of things — jelly-donut viscera — splotches, wounds, even an alveolar pupil in the eye of a daisy.

Electronic artists behind the tortuous Wider, Trans/Human, are Adam Denton and Luke Twyman of Audacious Art Experiment. Trans/Human craft an aptly transitional presentation, linear but muddled, confounding the interpretation of sounds as they are shifted from one source to another. The Wider features the screams of humans but transitions to them through remote, and so, blind, cries of animals lowing, cawing, keening. They remind us that humans are animals, and that the frantic noise of fright or pain has a subhuman power to work over the listener, demanding an active attention … and action (though impossible here). The near- (and paradox) insufferability of Wider (for its hearer) — would you condone leaving a human in pain? — yields an emotive desire for interactivity that’s exceptional in this genre, whose worse enemy is what it’s most conducive to: “sit-back-and-re-lax.” The expressive rawness of the screams plays, too, on the imagination, and the listener can imagine virtually anything going on, or not going on … who knows? No one. In a way, horror films do us a kindness by showing the violence or fearful stimulus, disabusing the listener of their need to be afraid for any number of opportunities, sympathetically prepared for anything. Some screams seem more reverent than upset, and a choral atmosphere, droning, and plainsong chant often presides as well — how hard it can be to distinguish between devotion and subjugation.

On a related note, the presentation of [x] as music immediately informs our perception and interpretation … and can make the experience problematic: in the first sequence of screams, slowly clarified as human from the animal babble, a single cymbal touch creates anempathy between the horror screams and the drums usually associated with comedy.

From the first sparsely percussive minutes, Wider ripens into a charged ambience, left off near-soundless negative space to great, hallowed effect, marinating the listener into an abiding patience. Wider is, in some ways, like the vitreous vapor rising in a dark foundry, aglow and wafting an ether of heat.

Wider begins with swaying footsteps and clave clacks, drum claps, a listless military exercise of clanking accouterments, the regimented dance of a prayer dress, ghungroos and dhols belabor in slow motion; a water-tortured metronome; the keen clack of cane; the wild hollow of a ghost dance. Then cries transduce slowly, from the lowing of a cow giving birth, to the hushed choir of caws as the black mass of birds comes to settle … transmuting finally into a human. The agony persists as the thunderous staccato of tribal ambience begins again; it’s chilling as the cries become increasingly coherent, and, from the beastly herd, a man. Then an ambience alert and abuzz, with the purposed roil of a shifty spider’s legs or the spotty turn of cartoon bees from a pooh book. The ambience of captivity — a dank and dripping cell, walls leaching, still air smelling of rusted metal of a prison cell — is again broken by the anempathetic cymbal. It’s the Tony Oxley-worthy jangle from the drum kit — sometimes frivolous but at others masterfully-aired sarcasm — that make uncomfortable evocations sound laudatory or trite. It’s as though there’s been a soundtrack all along….

A windswept oscillation of accumulated sound hurtles, expelling steam in a long gasp, locomotive windows whistling in percussive wind-ups; human screams are buried in the sonic miscellany. Then the motile cry of the screeching train becomes the yawn of an angry cat. Wound through cloughs, a vortex of noise hurtles, consuming and overpowering. The cymbals make even this visceral, tornadogenic pull anempathetic. It’s a hungry demon sort of sound, opened wide on the wide open event horizon and into the sunset; the bright clank chimes of patina-laden metal settles into drum stick soft scrums, leaf rustles of percussion. An abrasive alarm tone begins to drone. A percussive whatsit Oxley jangle smatters. And there’s almost total silence (11:50) but present in its absence, charged with an electrostatic buzz. Then a witch cackle crackle becomes a mechanical toad lowing in its crank substitute, and slag is heaped and fumblingly resorted. Brooding viols and cellos begin to abrade their strings.

Then it’s a whirlpool of Mozarabic chant, the viscous drone of an organ, everything resonating; Wider begins to mobilize with a loud guitar spottily plucking out a few notes; the drum energetically steps up to motoric starts and stops in cool waves, then, faster, into military double-time, with cymbal crashes for syncopation. There’s a hum underneath like a blender wrapped in wool; a comber rotary becomes softer with each dip; a surf punk moment includes a dobro and discharges a upbeat tone, with beeps underneath, a parody of a small band mincing about its takeover of retro kitchen appliances: grinding motors and a reverberant wash of droning. The small revolutionary non-flap of helicopter leaves; now resonant peaks and valleys; wound down, wound back up; settles down into resonance; yowling again like cattle or monks in a guttural chant; their pitch begins to crown at the note where the lawnmower’s finally started. Vacillating vox is chanting and twining in a bizarre pained round, the frame switching static beneath and beginning to segment itself.

There’s clanging and calling over a mid-size rotary hum as fermatas duplicate on the page, droning on hold. Then a switch to a grungy sci-fi crunch, like a mid-century military operation in a cold corridor with olive-green wallpaper. A break is rhythmic, dilapidated jazzy, with a distorted keyboard or honking sax. A theramin begins like a soprano cry but is replaced by a woman’s scream. A foil to the man’s distressed cries near Wider’s beginning, she is not upset at all, but rather deeply formidable, with an almost shamanic power, unmistakable as a woman-lioness … a sort of Clytemnestra moment. More trains screak and organs unstopper; a deep beat evokes a tuba weedwacker; drum kits are banged about conventionally all the while, as though there’s nothing strange and messy about what it’s backing. A bagpipe sound creates an ambient plane underwater; helicopter propeller roulette takes on a bright, almost woodwind-edge.

It’s more of the same as The Wider anneals, rollicking to its 33-minute close in a thinning bubbly barrage, with choral undertones and gristly feedback. It’s gritty and silt-thick, with curtains of gong wiping the slate; side-to-side percussion like an earthquake jitter under the surface. High-pitched screaks, stilted rhythms, crowd noises, and pot-n-pan drum kits evince the breaking wave that later, as an undertow, shifts sands, destabilizing as it strafes below, leaving nothing but a hum and drum stick claps — like a stopwatch. The stagehands clear the set. To close, whistles begin from a human throat, then soften to birds, … then to a lull of crickets: “silence.”

by Brittany Tracy

. issue III : vi .

. artist : napalm jazz .
. album : cassettes 1999-2000 .
. year : 2007 .
. label : no type .
. grade : a .


These home-taping sessions from experimental contemporary sound ensemble Napalm Jazz were recorded between 1999 and 2000, their formative years. Mixed, refurbished, and released as a proto-demo post-mixtape by Aimé Dontigny, Cassettes 1999-2000 manifests all the devastating, unrelieved ingenuity of the original group (Dontigny, Philémon Robitaille, Érick Dorion, and David Turgeon) and their musique concrete origins. Guest artists somewhere in this mess include Morceaux de Machines and L’île de Béton. Well, congrats — I don’t know how they find their cameos. Though it is possible to pick out the recto and folio, the knotwork, where one session has been mixed into another, part of the claustrophobic fun is not doing so, and Cassettes — believe me — takes everything out of your hands. This release is 58-minutes and 26-seconds of ferociously decocted, cunningly demented, brittle bric-a-brac that is almost too much for the listener and itself! It is a dissolute and tortuous single track. Indeed, Cassettes is so dense, wringing, and matter-of-factly grotesque that the listener can hardly stand the vertiginous pummeling.

This is their most abrasive work. It is like sandpaper for your auditory cortex, foley art for an hour of bloodletting, piddling about in a whirlpool before you drown from exhaustion.

And if you do not read the timestamp, you won’t have any idea how much time has passed! This is the opposite of timelessness (i.e. an expanse): it’s the compression of reality to a frenetic lack of time! The particularizable experience of time — forget continuity, predictability, melody — is entirely forfeit.

In Cassettes, Napalm Jazz has total control: the listener merely hears what they hear, devoid of time for the illusion of interpretation (i.e. how the listener achieves control). The keystone technique for said controlling is the steel-wool-wrapping of the fuzzy, fine-grained sonic quality, ceaselessly shifting, swallowed and wallowed and smothered microphone tunneling. Even when you think you know what it is you’re hearing (e.g. a mobile, a gun, a sermon), the center of a tornado, under its consumptive roar, items screaming out velocity as they whirl past you, is not a comfortable place to be. Concrete is like foley: it comes from one thing and does its standing for the sounding of something else, and it’s particulate in its being tailored, or, what it does is be tailored to [ ]. But does it itself matter? Not quite … it’s the sound that suffices. But does the sound matter? Not quite … its own sound cannot suffice and has to be fabricated (by what? it doesn’t matter). What does matter? The process: the semiotics of standing for, the tailoring, the fabrication. The listener is forced to acknowledge that it is the nature of the sound that is standing for another sound, moreover, the active playing of one sound so that it does this standing is all that matters because it is all there really is. It is not so strange that Napalm Jazz should have utter control: they manifest reality. Neither is it strange that Cassettes should be about instances, literally, about instantiating something. And note that units of expectable time, so procedural and regular in mundane experience, are fractured in Cassettes (e.g. the sermonizing enhances the preachers’ fumbles and his fanatic temper). All sounds are relentlessly transduced via this living static, the abiding tornado wall of violent, hazy, hirsute wind.

Notable sonic threads include a defective music box, the demented, incensed collision of sermonizing, impenetrable newscasts in foreign languages, the embouchure of wind and glass, improbable melodies from rotary telephones, and the friendly elevator ‘ding’ — yes, but where have you arrived? This is a catoptric jaunt of transduction, blending human and mechanical energies in order to remove the distinction between forms and causes. Without kowtowing to purposefulness — that is, making any gesture towards regularity, conceit, or comprehensibility — the mind has no way to interpret given stimuli. The listener must trust that a piece ‘wants’ to be transparent in order to appraise purposefulness, or, identifying purposefulness is just a favor that the musician gives to you (“alright, I’ll let you play along”).

Cassettes, far beyond any other Napalm Jazz release, reminds its listeners that meaning is a construct and can only be constructed when the boat isn’t rocking. There is a sort of relief, too, in denying the mind of all its conjectures.

Everything looks different after you emerge — that’s the right word — from this album. One line from my listening notes reads “animalist opera contralto kazoo yikes bagpipe” — and it’s all like that. Cassettes is a masterfully distasteful masterpiece disaster. And though renowned for their improvisational live work, in no way does this disturbing scrappy marinade fail to reach and hurdle the bar Napalm Jazz constantly sets and imprudently exceeds. Cassettes is aptly conscribed in the ironic touch of the elevator bell, as if to say, in admission to the choleric sermon, ‘Basement Floor: Hell.’

by Brittany Tracy