Hail the onset of winter for us here in the top side of the planet. The first lick of cold in the air sends us diving into closets for some sort of armour to keep the specter of the White Burial out of our marrow. I live in balmy Louisiana, where we see a snowflake as often as we see an uncorrupted public servant, but the chill is just as marked and abrupt, even if it is not at harsh as it is in those places that God tried unsuccessfully to drive thee hence with the inhospitable climates you stubbornly endure. Still, the cold is one of the great triggers for reflection and contemplation, and the Arctic is the one last great incomprehensible on the planet. The howling winds killing everything and whittling mountains to nubs, entombing the cosmos in ice. I have no desire to ever set foot above that imaginary circle where even the most sober of geologists was forced to say, "There be dragons" when setting out the maps. I do however, appreciate those who go there, even if just metaphorically.
Perhaps one of the most notable armchair explorations of this world was the trek led by Louisiana-born men of mystery, The Residents. Early in their career of cartoon mystery, long before one of the eyeballs was stolen, they were known for nothing being known about them. They wore eyeball masks and tuxedos, lived somewhere in San Francisco and did perverse sounding audio pastiches from the underbelly of new wave, lacerating all that frolicked on the surface. Like the many phases one goes through in college - vegetarian, bisexual, Catholic, conservative, etc - I went through a Residents phase, dodgy dubs of their catalog nicked from the college radio station blaring out the red generic walkman headphones glued to my Cousin-It-maned head. The one album at the time I couldn't get into was their supposed landmark Eskimo. To me, it didn't have the humor and perversity the others maintained so well. It should be noted that my Residents phase coincided almost perfectly with my John Waters phase, so that may give you an idea of where my head was at.
Now, with the belly of an old man to gird me, I can see the brilliance in this record. The six faux-documentary pieces on this record, supposedly documenting the lost rites of northern aboriginal cultures slowly being assimilated and thereby destroyed by those of more civilized, warmer clients. Swirls of winds, ominous droning horn fugues and chants embody the backbone of this record while epic battles are fought in the foreground. Seals clubbed, children stolen by spirits culminating with "The Festival of Death" all obscured by relentless howling winds. The beauty of this record is that while it was definitely styled after field recordings of the 40s and 50s conducted and recorded by the Smithsonian and the like, this record has in turn shaped the future of field recordings after, like those of Annea Lockwood and the Sun City Girls. You here echoes of The Residents in reality. The other thing this record did is set the stage in 1979 for how to create a soundscape while still within a pop music context; how to create and abstract world of distorted voices and primitive percussion and noir drones and cinematic excerpts without losing the 4/4 crowd. Twenty seven years and countless Laibach and Barry Adamson albums later, this is still a masterwork of chant, pop and stillness.
Eskimo was thawed out from my vaults because of how it segues nicely into the droning bowed guitar intro to "The Gate" on Dead Sea, the latest sonic exploratory grab bag from Xela, the performing moniker for Manchester's John Twells. While it does not display the maddening consistency that Eskimo puts forth, Dead Sea takes a number of different takes on homemade drone folk. "Linseed" sounds as if some sort of bottle cleaning apparatus is doing a duet against a reverb heavy guitar, while "Drunk on Salt Water" sounds like the world from the point of view of a mosquito. The running thread on this, as on Eskimo, is the looping, tribal junk percussion, clanks and thuds trundling along with loose accompaniment by squawking horns and the basso profound of the cosmos. I've said before, this chicken fried trance music is maybe my favorite kind of music, stuff that is the Om Shanti of the unenlightened, or at least masquerading as such.
The track that really gets me here is "Savage Ritual" where the intoning of a clock and guitars and rustling bog clatter mix with an insistent and rather pleasant guitar and bass uprising, continually rising without need for falling. It's a remarkably pretty piece of music for as noisy it is at parts. The other standout is "A Floating Procession" with its clamor of bells and buzzes sounding not unlike miles of ramshackle houseboats gently colliding as they unsuspectingly float downstream to a waterfall. It operates on the Eskimo frequency, where things are definitely sad, melancholy even, but the heart still beats on in the characters experiencing it.
A Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast
Electronic duo Matmos seem to have picked up in some ways, where the Residents left off. The Residents are a continuing concern, but to these ears they haven't made any really significant music since 1989's The King and Eye. Matmos take the kitchen sink approach The Residents were so fond of and translate it to the laptop set. Matmos provides some hope for electronic music. My frustrations with the genre are that is every sound conceivable is now available to you, why rest on the laurels of Brian Eno's ambient achievements from 20 years ago and not progress further, deeper? Matmos do this very thing. Their cut and paste is surgery precise, their sense of texture and nuance is spot on. Where they really shine is that, like The Residents, they make profoundly weird music that still registers as pop and as having a sense of humor.
This latest trek serves as a series of tributes. "Tract for Valerie Solanis" is a maddeningly loopy disco-funk swoon drunk on delusion. You can almost see the silver walls of Warhol's factory in this piece, slowly dripping with blood through an amphetamine haze. Others are odd, sparse mood pieces like "Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith" - a baroque sadness emanating from it mirroring the work of the "Stranger on a Train" author for which it's named. As a whole, the album is a nonstop Dr. Seuss journey through a psycho-sexual jungle, chirps and noises coming from all angles. The most charming here is "Germs Burn for Darby Crash" depicting the quick rise and even quicker fall of the legendary drunken punk icon. Each figure feted on this record is known for having some kind of fractured view of the world around us, and they manage to pick up the fractured pieces, long having lost their puzzle logic, to make something new, weird and beautiful out of them.
Nurse With Wound
Shipwrecked Radio: Final Broadcast
Now, if you really want to get into who is who in creating perverse soundscapes out of haunting queasy drones and pop fragments, stroking both the hideous and hilarious tentacles of the Cthulu lurking beneath all our psychic waters, one only need to throw a dart randomly at the Nurse With Wound catalog and chances are you will get more than you bargain for. Steven Stapleton's project has been rumbling along for decades now with staggering amounts of aural dada menace, always harrowing and usually rather, well, cute. I'd lost track of them around the time I did The Residents, though research shows their catalog remained strikingly strong in my absence. The latest NWW joint that caught my brain with all this Eskimo nostalgia is their Shipwrecked radio series. Stapleton and cohort Colin Porter chose to be voluntarily marooned on some obscure Norwegian island abover teh Arctic circle, with but a minimum of recording equipment for three months, transmitting their resulting creations via a small village radio station to Resonance FM in London and then onto these discs.
I am going to go out on a limb here in saying I think Stapleton's Walden on Ice is about as factual as the rumor that some of the percussion on Eskimo is frozen fish being beaten on an igloo. Stapleton, like the Residents seem to me to follow the great Duchampian tradition of Lying for Art; creating these works out of impossible, improbably vacuums and using the patina of the far-fetched to create a greater piece. And it totally works. Divided into two tracks, both initiated with a lost radar bleep signal, the first is an almost 30 minute piece on wind, the sheer howl of it run through countless filters and mixes, a hypnotic and defiant evil. Listened to this in the car just yesterday when stuck in traffic and it was as if the hollow gale was blowing all the paltry humanity gridlocked around me into a bottomless fjord.
The second piece ties all these records together. It is simple as fuck - a short garbled piece of speech floating in what seems to be a sonic void, a field of soul-death. This snippet of text is repeatedly elongated and further garbled by whatever sonic witchcraft Stapleton employs out in his hut in the south of Ireland, getting possibly more annoying with each run. What is great about it though, that the humor in it starts to sink in if you make it past the 7 minute mark. The goopy static-garbled thing gets more and more destroyed every time. It's like if you were in outer space, and the only sign of life you could find was this runaway broadcast from a dying satellite, and you played it over and over again, gaining the wisdom of it as you lost your sanity. It is just as cold as the wind on the first track, or the fake Eskimo rites of the Residents, but just as warm and human as Xela's guitar pedal tinkering and Matmos' carefully dissected collage of us all. It's the perverse resiliency of the human spirit, in that in the most inhospitable place for out survival, we find the most human parts of ourselves.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com