New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: innova records

Revisiting One of the Most Haunting String Quartets of Recent Years

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. Hersch takes his inspiration from Michael Mazur’s 1960s series of etchings of grimacing, contorted, sometimes catatonic patients in a Rhode Island mental institution, lost in perpetuity in their own worlds. In a particularly tragic footnote, just when Hersch had finished his own sketches for this work and reached out to his old artist pal, Mazur died. So there’s a doubly elegaic quality to this music.

It’s very slow and ghostly in the purest sense of the word. Stark sheets shift and then evoke sudden and persistent horror, grounded by Felix Wang’s cello – Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 7 is a persistent reference point. A gentle, graceful dance brings a moment of nostalgia, only to fade mournfully toward black, awash in eerie close harmonies.

Moments where individual voices – Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard’s violins and John Kochanowski’s viola – enter or pair off outnumber passages where the whole quartet is in slow, ineluctably grim motion. Microtonal fragments flicker and then disappear just as suddenly. But when the quartet are going full steam, particularly through a surreal, phantasmagorical, cruelly ironic march before the final clouds descend, the effect is hair-raising.  That sense is amplified by Mazur’s drawings, several of them included in the cd booklet.

Innova Records still has this available, and it’s up at Spotify.

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

Today’s installment for Halloween month is Philip Blackburn’s album Music of Shadows – streaming at Spotify – which was written to be played in the St. Paul, Minnesota sewer system. Innova Records put out this bleak, tectonically and ineluctably shifting triptych in 2014, and it may be the high point of the composer’s career so far.

Blackburn is sort of the shadow image of Brian Eno – his enveloping, often darkly majestic electroacoustic soundscapes tend to whoosh and resonate in the lows, sometimes with provocative samples. His recent works have addressed the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and have lampooned right-wing bigotry. This one is more of a relentless mood piece. Even the mathrock-y bubbles as the second movement opens give way to a coldly echoing, oscillating resonance.

About five minutes into the icy lead-pipe ambience of the opening movement, there are doors slamming and children playing, but the effect evokes a prison vastly more than it does a playground. And the disembodied choir fading in and out eventually blend with the rest of the ghosts.

And for anyone living in an urban area, the album has value to match its gloomy, entrancing artistic merits. Your neighbors might bang on the ceiling if you crank a loud rock record in the middle of the night to drown out the crackhead or the creeps down the hall, but if you blast this, nobody can really complain – and if you’re tired enough, it will eventually lull you back to sleep.  After all, nobody can tell you that you can’t vacuum your floor at four in the morning, can they? That movie you were just blasting? What movie, wink wink! Any nightmares you might have are incidental. Or are they?

Delicate, Otherworldly Exotica from Vietnamese Folk Innovator Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

It took two and a half years, but an album finally came over the transom here that’s so strange and otherworldly and surrealistically captivating that it qualifies as exotic. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo‘s new release Three Mountain Pass mixes and sometimes mashes up traditional Vietnamese sounds along with an opera piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, plus a reinvention of an iconic, macabre classic. Her main instruments are the dan tranh – which has the ringing, sitar-like, bent-note resonance of the Indian sarangi, but with fewer overtones – and the dan bau, which can swoop and dive like an acoustic version of a theremin, or carry long resonant lines like a violin.

She opens the album with a solo dan tranh diptych, slowly unfolding in the Asian pentatonic scale and then working its way into an insistent raga-like interlude. Erik Satie’s creepily immortal Gnossienne No. 3 gets an expansive interpretation, the lingeringly eerie melody grounded by ghostly chords played on a bass dan tranh. On the minimalistic title track, Vo sings her own arrangement of  an 18th century Vietnamese poem with a brittle, impassioned expressiveness over hypnotic hang (the Swiss steel drum) and percussion. Vo joins with the Kronos Quartet on Green River Delta, a folk-inspired opera piece written by Luu Thuy Truong, rising to a dancing pastoral sway that blends hypnotically with the spiky dan tranh melody underneath.

She concludes the album with a trio of originals. Mourning, an elegy for those maimed and killed during the Vietnam War, mixes dizzyingly sepulchral layers of echoing, sirening, multitracked dan bau. The Legend illustrates a Vietnamese creation myth, its spacious atmospherics interchanging with an intricate web of dan tranh, percussion and keyboards. Vo plays t’rung, the South Vietnamese bamboo xylophone, accompanied by boomy Japanese taiko drums on the final cut, Go Hunting, a mysterious but lively jungle theme. All of this has a strangely soothing effect: it isn’t likely that there’s been another album that remotely resembles this one released (in this case, by Innova) in the US this year.

David T. Little’s Soldier Songs Gives Voice to Veterans’ Views of the Horror of War

To what degree is an artist responsible for making music accessible to an audience who might be influenced by it? Is the goal of reaching those who aren’t already converted necessary, worthwhile…or even possible? When Stiv Bators crooned “Video games train the kids for war,” with the Lords of the New Church in 1983, he did it over a catchy synthesizer riff. That song was popular on college radio and in clubs; it even aired on MTV. Did it make a difference? Would anyone have cared if, instead, Bators had been singing “Get money, get money?” Does it make any sense for an artist to fine-tune a message to get it across, or is that a waste of time? Percussionist/composer David T. Little’s most recent album Soldier Songs, recently out from Innova, raises questions like these.

First premiered in 2006 at the nadir of the Bush/Cheney reign of terror by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the album is a performance piece that intersperses and sometimes makes pastiches of quotes from several generations of American war veterans among Little’s eclectic, cerebral songs. Musically speaking, the audience this will resonate the most with will probably be fans of proggy mathrock bands like the Mars Volta and System of a Down – a niche crowd, but not an insubstantial one. While the voices of the veterans – hushed, angry, sometimes still shellshocked – are the most resonant here, the songs themselves have a potent, tersely worded punk rock sarcasm. This is the rare album where the lyrics frequently overshadow the music. David Adam Moore’s snarky, operatic baritone adds a stagy, snidely bombastic surrealism and over-the-top flair over the moody menace of the versatile, often explosive punk-classical group Newspeak.

The introduction is a pastiche of quotes, many of them memorable, set against a backdrop of ominous cannonfire drums. A woman revisits her decision to join the military, reminding how many young people make that choice as a way to escape the poverty trap or earn an education. The second track brings on the punk rock sarcasm,  sort of the Dead Kennedys set to swaying, minimialistic art-rock. From there Moore revisits the aforementioned Stiv Bators observation, followed by the creepy chamber rock of the vividly self-explanatory Counting the Days.

Still Life with Tank and Ipod revisits the video game theme with a cruelly surreal proggy metal attack, contrasting with the moody dirge Old Friends with Large Weapons. Hollywood Ending artfully juxtaposes ominous lows with snarkily bubbly highs, a litany of gruesome imagery that picks up with a groove that’s practically disco, underscoring the surrealism of the fact that this is not a movie: people are actually dying here. Another sound collage, Steel Rain, lets the vets explain the terror of being on the wrong side of a bombing attack. After that, the hauntingly minimalist Hunting Emmanuel Goldstein reminds that a police state crackdown on civil liberties after a terrorist attack plays straight into the terrorists’ hands. The album ends with the understandably vitriolic response of a parent whose child was killed in battle, and a long, hypnotic collage which doesn’t hesitate to address the issue that war is inevitably a proxy battle, the have-nots doing the haves’ dirty work. Will this album make any converts? Probably not. But to paraphrase Phil Kline, it’s inspiring and validating for the rest of us. That Little achieved it by letting this surprisingly diverse cast portray the horrors of war enhances both its credibility and power.

Unclassifiable Music Is Always the Most Interesting

What if someone said to you, “listening to this album is like watching clouds.” You’d figure that they were bored, or high, right? Still, that’s a fair approximation of what Alexander Berne’srecent all-instrumental, double-cd magnum opus, Flickers of Mime/Death of Memes, evokes – and it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s like flying at low altitude at very low speed on an overcast day as dusk approaches. Shifting banks of sound come at you slowly, in waves: low drones, white noise, washes with endlessly changing, minute shifts in timbre or pitch, and tantalizing snatches of melody. It would be overly reductionistic to say that it’s a struggle between rhythm and stillness, between change and stasis, but that’s a big part of it. More apparent is the tug-of-war between balmy contentment and unease – and guess which one wins most of the time! Rock fans will call this ambient music; a musicologist would probably call it horizontal music; you could also file it under indie classical or avant-garde and nobody would complain. But more than anything else, this is an album of nocturnes.

Berne plays all the instruments: his background is jazz sax improvisation, and he has pyrotechnic chops, although the result is just the opposite here. Although the sounds are heavily processed via a pitch pedal and what seems to be an endless series of loops, many of the instruments are clearly recognizable: sax, piano, various percussion instruments (most of them on the low, boomy end of the register). Sometimes Berne is a one-man wind ensemble, occasionally reaching for regal, epic heights. Other times it’s impossible to figure out what the instrumentation is: organ? Ebow guitar? Bagpipes? A string section? A lonesome train whistle? Fluttering, bubbling, rippling, echoing or sirening, texture after texture enters the mix and then fades out or simply disappears. Occasionally, there are glacial conversational exchanges between them, or an unexpected, dramatic percussion cadenza (among them a wry Also Sprach Zarathustra quote that opens the second disc). Unexpectedly upbeat flashes of melody, including a tensely meandering handful of piano passages appear and then fade away into the nebulous, opaque backdrop. The most cohesive moments here are a couple of trip-hop interludes that, when you upload the album, work best at the end: by themselves, they’re not bad, but as they’re sequenced on the album, the segues they create are on the jarring side. But maybe that’s intentional. While each cd is divided up into discrete parts, it’s best enjoyed taken as a whole.

Those who require a catchy melody and a snappy beat will probably find this interminable (although there’s actually more melody here than you usually find in, say, Brian Eno). But at high volume, it’s absolutely intoxicating; at low volume, it’s a great album to send you off to dreamland on a whispery, surreal note. It came out on Innova last fall. That it’s taken this long to figure out what it’s about, between now and when it first came over the transom here, testifies to its hypnotic, mysterious power.