Hey y’all. I’m gonna try to see how this whole Grooveshark embedded playlist thing works/looks. So here’s the deal. If this turns out okay, you get a playlist of the phenomenal Zelienople album His/Hers. If it doesn’t, well, nothing will happen. Ready? WOO!
Aaaaaaand that looks good to me! Well, I shan’t really write anything involved about this, but I’ll say that Zelienople is one of my latest obsessions, and His/Hers is one of their strongest albums. It’s got that Scum-era Bark Psychosis underwater contemplative chaos thing going on, which is a major plus in my book. But why should I prattle on about it? You can listen to it right here! Is music criticism dead? Was the preceding question so 2007? Yes and yes. Enjoy.
As you may or may not know, I’m an Austinite, and I have a blessedly typical, yet nevertheless awesome, SXSW experience to share with you.
I had just wrapped up an early evening which featured seeing my girlfriend’s friend’s band Other Lives* and was biking home past Cheer Up Charlie’s on 6th Street when I heard what I assumed was two bros engaging in a dueling synthesizer space-out. It was very Emeralds-esque, and I had to circle back and see what the deal was. As soon as I rounded the block, the wash of cascading hypnosis abruptly stopped and segued into a head-spinning finger-tapping frenzy. Anticipation welled in my chest, and I got the feeling that something absolutely unexpectedly amazing was going on onstage. I rounded into view and was confronted with the sight of a dude absolutely shredding onstage, flying solo. Holy chops! I stood outside the fence cordoning off the area and watched the guy just dominate his guitar for 20 minutes. The guitarist’s face was pained, his posture contorted, as he finger-tapped blazingly intricate guitar fractals. At some point, I caught my jaw just hanging open, and I laughed to myself in sheer glee. Occasionally, I’d glance around, and everyone who was watching (probably about 40 in all) had the same ecstatic, engrossed gaze. A handful of times I’d make eye contact with a fellow traveller and we’d exchange one of those holy-shit-are-you-seeing-what-I’m-seeing glances. And yes, we’d all convey to each other, this is really happening. Affirmation was all around.
And then, after about 20 minutes of dizzyingly unleashing a torrent of harmonics and overtones, the guitarist abruptly stopped. There was a split second of silence before the audience erupted into a round of applause surprisingly enthusiastic for its modest size. I walked straight up to the guy and gave him my typical dumbstruck intro:
“Hey, man, that was awesome.”
He seemed very generous and grateful, and told me his project was called Hubble—an apt name. I left, absolutely addicted.
Once I got home, I spent an hour trying to find information on the guy. As one might imagine, a really obscure act with a name as heavily trafficked as Hubble was kind of hard to come by online. Determination conquers all, though, and I finally found Hubble’s casette online. Click the living bejeezus out of that link! CLICK IT AND LOVE IT. I also found this excellent video of of Hubble performing on a Brooklyn rooftop. Here it is:
A secondary takeaway from all this (the primary one being that Hubble is important and beautiful and transformative and that I was lucky to see him live): I have learned that Terroreyes.tv is a totally badass website.
*I would like to go on record to state that Other Lives is an absolutely phenomenal band. And don’t be suspicious: My judgment here is not clouded from relational duty or proximal taint. Their newest album, Tamer Animals, is sad, beautiful, triumphant music. Listen to them.
Before the Black Angels, there was Loop, and Heaven’s End was their Passover—a fuzzed-out, bump-and-grind swaggerfest of razor-wire guitars, drug-fueled paranoia, and addled sexual menace.
Loop got its start in London in 1986, where leader Robert Hampson allegedly learned four chords on a guitar and promptly began ripping off fellow travelers Spacemen 3.* At least, that’s the prevailing idea. And admittedly, Loop at times—okay, most of the time—does sound an awful lot like those late, great(er) purveyors of psychedelic sneer. But Loop does Spacemen 3’s aggressive, addled hypnosis so damn well it’s hard for me to hold it against them.†
Take “Soundhead,” for example, which starts off the album with a lean, muscular rhythm section pounding out a deliciously repetitive riff, anchoring waves of hissy, trebly, wah’d-out guitars. “Soundhead” is, without qualification, an excellent song, all raw, druggy menace and sneering swagger, a nearly unrivaled opening salvo for any appropriately mean-spirited, drug-addled record. Derivative, perhaps, but rock criticism’s age-old emphasis on originality loses much of its relevance when you’re restraining an overwhelming urge to do an embarrassingly nerdy fist-pump dance at your computer desk. Like, ahem, this guy, right now. I think it’s probably time to turn Heaven’s End down a little bit, here…
I digress. “Soundhead” isn’t the only highlight on Heaven’s End. Many of Loop’s engrossingly circular riffs are bass-driven, with layers of noisy guitar wailing added for that particular mind-melting aggro-texture. It’s a winning recipe, one that Loop exploits to particularly excellent effect on “Straight to Your Heart”:
Yum. Worshippers at the Black Angels’ feet (and I include myself among that rapt throng) can be forgiven for assuming “Straight to Your Heart” is a lost, Directions to See a Ghost-era cut from Austin’s finest.
And not everything sounds entirely Boom-and-Pierce-derived. Loop seemed to be at once more experimental (such as on the title track, with its squalls of guitar and reversed cymbal smashing) and more song-oriented (as on “Head On,” which, if it wasn’t smothered in acid-drenched guitars, would sound positively poppy). On Heaven’s End, Loop was already straying a bit from the template they lifted off of Spacemen 3, a trend they’d continue (hesitatingly) throughout their career.
Loop went on to record two more albums, one of which (1988’s Fade Out) I haven’t heard, and one of which (1990’s A Gilded Eternity) is fucking spectacular, before disbanding in 1991. Hampson continued his Sonic Boom-aping by starting the experimental group Main, which ripped the buzzsaw distorted guitars out of Loop’s song structures and suspended them in murky, cavernous, cacophonous, dark ambient soundscapes. Main was good, but not great (certainly no Experimental Audio Research, the drone project Boom dabbled in after Spacemen 3’s demise), and Heaven’s End remains one of the better “These guys should be paying royalties” albums out there. It’s not original, but it sure does kick ass.
*Amusingly, Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 has, on-record and with fangs bared, alleged Hampson of doing this very thing. The quote was something like this: “Yeah, they really ripped us off!” Who knew songwriters in the 80s psychedelic underground beefed so hard?
†There’s a bit of George Brigman’s Jungle Rot in the band’s swagger as well, but really, the two referents are the contemporary one (Spacemen 3) and the current one (the Black Angels). Not bad bands to be sonically joined at the hip to, in my humble opinion.
In a perfect world, Th’ Faith Healers would be as popular as the Pixies. Critics would gush about the noise-pop perfectionism of the band’s three Too Pure releases, Lido, Imaginary Friend, and L’. Th’ Faith Healers would be millionaires, or at least hundreds-of-thousands-aires, and they’d go on world tours and tear up the festival circuit as headliners or near-headliners. Girls would flip.
At least we have what we have from them, and that’s three records of nearly peerless aggro drone-pop mastery.
Th’ Faith Healers were part of that mid-90s Too Pure stable that included such lush and luscious bands as Laika, Mouse on Mars, Stereolab, Seefeel, Rothko, and Pram, among others.* Most of those bands were known for introspection, atmosphere, and texture. Th’ Faith Healers were one of the few bands that broke that unity of sound, emphasizing concrete crunch over abstracted abstraction, and they arguably did so more than any other labelmate.**
Though I alluded to the Pixies, and though there’s an obvious and undeniable affinity, there’s more to Th’ Faith Healers than aggressive, quirky pop. The squalls of noise, despite being resolutely lo-fi, are much more abrasive than anything you’re likely to find on anything Black Francis has had a hand in. The songs themselves owe much more to the chugging, hypnotic repetition of Krautrock than the two-minute sugarbursts the Pixies excelled at. Perhaps most notably, the sense of bouncy, in-your-face fun that characterizes the Pixies has been swapped out for a foreboding weirdness. All these changes, I should note, are to the vast betterment of Th’ Faith Healers.
Imaginary Friend is sequenced carefully. Th’ Faith Healers start off with a muscular brand of amphetamine-fueled pop and then methodically eviscerate it, stretching it out and making it progressively moodier. Opener “Sparklingly Chime,” with its chunky bassline, spoken vocals, and wailing guitar lead, could conceivably be the quirkiest song on, say, a Breeders record. Somehow, though, I don’t think anyone is going to mistake the menacing, propulsive, seven-minute-plus “The People,” complete with cathartic caterwauls of noise and murmured falsetto, with “Mr. Grieves.” (Guess which song I prefer?) And Black Francis at his absolute ballsiest would have been terrified of the half-hour Kraut-punk jam “Everything, All At Once Forever/Run Out Groove,” which is sort of like the 90s version of “This Dust Makes That Mud”—unapologetically indulgent, meandering, and positively hypnotic.
Though Th’ Faith Healers were, sonically, a bit out of place in comparison with their contemporaries on Too Pure, they really did share a number of aesthetic sensibilities with their labelmates, including a fascination with the possibilities of sound and an emphasis on nontraditional song structure. Imaginary Friend, in all its threatening, noisy glory, is a testament to that, a nocturnal, creepy, joyfully menacing piece of work.
*Christ almighty! Every time I look at the Too Pure roster, I get chills. Too Pure is, pound for pound, my favorite record label.
There are times, when suffering from the jagged angularity of your day-to-day, when you need enforced limbo, a sort of pleasant mental suspension and insulation from the unexpected, the harsh, and the real. Blondes, with their Touched EP, provide that perfect humid, mathematical immersion needed to achieve a happy internal stasis.
The five tracks that make up Touched all consist of variations on that easy-breezy Balearic drift that took peaceful hipsters by storm in 2007. It’s all mellow synth washes, earnest, buried melodies, and charmingly lo-fi beats on the slow side of mid-tempo. It’s house music for a humid summer’s night: leached of all drama, devoid of urgency, languid, and warm.
You can point to all manner of contemporary referents, because this Balearic/chillwave sound is definitely a “thing,” but I’m not going to do that because a) I don’t have the sort of complete or even particularly well-informed knowledge of that scene to feel like I can pick influences w/o consulting Wikipedia and Pitchfork and Grooveshark and making guesses, and b) the much more interesting (at least from my perspective) reference point is Manuel Göttsching’s guitar geometries from the late 70s and early 80s.
To tell the Göttsching story the right way would involve a serious digressionary swerve, so I’m gonna just avoid that tarpit and say that he was an ex-Krautrock psych lord who moved away from the acid-drenched, mind-melting experiments of his youth in Ash Ra Tempel toward a progressively more ordered, elevated, and clear-eyed approach, one embodied by albums such as Ashra’s* 1976 album New Age of Earth and epitomized by Göttsching’s own brilliant 1984 effort E2-E4.
E2-E4 is a true rarity, an electronic album that’s over 25 years old and doesn’t sound dated. It’s a masterpiece of repetition, all fractal guitar figures and stately rhythms and luscious layers of synth. It’s nearly an hour long, and it’s endlessly engrossing.
Enough about that, though. (Actually, not enough about that. I should probably write about E2-E4 soon.) Blondes continues that aesthetic tradition set forth by Göttsching, and they do it proud. Even if Touched doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, it’s still more than worth spending an hour drifting in its hypnotic, amniotic warmth.
*Yes, that’s a name change. Sometimes you just gotta reinvent.