In possibly one of the most alternative-musical-canonical posts we’ve ever done, today I’m going to talk about Brian Eno and The Velvet Underground. Two entities that exist at that warm fuzzy point of critical consensus. A safe space where we can all find something to love. And that’s a gloriously post-modern thing.
The Velvet Underground and Brian Eno — as titans, stalking the archival halls of the record industry — don’t exist, obviously. In the same way as the reputations of all amazing music endeavours will ultimately consume their creators. They are illusions we convince ourselves of because we need The Velvet Underground and Eno to be real. We need the brief time we spend with them to be tangible, infallible and true.
Which is why Brian Eno covering the (post-Cale) Velvet Underground bought me to tears on Saturday.
The Velvet Underground’s song I’m Set Free, as every acolyte knows, appeared on their self titled LP in 1969. In it they orbit an almost religious awakening: whether actually religious (in a beautiful double bluff); a moment of release from a relationship; or a moment of sadomasochistic ecstasy. Whichever reading you chose, Moe Tucker’s gloriously spare drumming hypnotises. With the repeated guitar melody and euphoric chorus the whole thing creates a space for your consciousness to escape, if just for four minutes.
And so we come to Eno’s cover, the final track on his new album, The Ship.
Two moment break my heart.
The first is that very first note. Echoing out and back through his ambient work. Moonscapes and deserts, topology and airports, rush through the pleasure centres of my brain.
The second, moments later is that soft drumming. Not the primally spare drumming of Moe, no, but a signal that marks the entrance of pop-Eno. Nostalgia for a time a good few years before you were born is an intoxicating thing. Partly because of the way that you retrospectively construct the impact of the music when you do discover it. And that will always be more potent than the indifferent reality.
And so, I’m Set Free is here to link Eno to Eno to The Velvet underground. To hear Eno’s glorious voice, slow but ecstatic, is to feel loss for his contemporaries, for moments in time that we never experienced, for people we never met, for titans of our musical universe that were and are only illusions.
“Western swing,” suggested country legend Merle Travis, “is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing.”
In 2011, western swing was recognised as the official state music of Texas. Paula Evone Jungmann, the activist who petitioned for the official recognition describes the genre thusly:
“Western swing music is infused with songs from many cultures. The Anglo-Saxon fiddle (or violin if you wish to call it), came to Texas from the British Isles; jazz, blues, and gospel from our African-American population; mariachi and conjunto from the Mexican people; the polka and waltz beat from our German and Czech ancestors; and the Cajun French Fiddle and accordion music from Louisiana. Perhaps because of it’s multi-ethnic origins, Texas Country music appeals to a wide variety of people from all generations, races and ethnic groups and is appreciated all over the world.”
Possibly the whitest derivative of jazz ever, western swing did share some musical similarities with the “gypsy jazz” contemporaneously innovated in Europe by the Belgian-born Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt, but its lyrical sensibilities were unmistakably “down home”, and some of the genre’ key composers, such as Jimmie Rodgers, were also among the first wave of country musicians in the 1920s.
The kings of western swing were Milton Brown and Bob Wills, who formed the first “professional” western swing band, the Light Crust Doughboys, in the early 1930s. Interestingly, this has to be one of the earliest examples of a band being manufactured primarily to sell non-musical product! The Burrus Mill Flour and Elevator Company president and future Democrat senator, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, had a vision of advertising his company’s Light Crust Flour on the radio – a relatively new marketing arena – and decided the best way to go about this would be to write some songs of his own and hire a group of musicians to perform them in a regular segment on his radio show.
O’Daniel would later tour with the group and use them as a springboard for his political ambitions, but by 1933, both Wills and Brown had departed, fronting Milton Brown & His Brownies and Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, respectively.
O’Daniel, meanwhile, would go on to find fame in unsubtly fictionalised form, as ‘Governor Pappy O’Daniel’ in O Brother, Where Art Thou!
Western swing bands would perform swing-esque rhythms, but in smaller ensembles, and with the band led almost exclusively by fiddle rather than horn. Finger-picked banjos – popular in hillbilly music, but uncommon in jazz, which favoured strumming – were also the norm here, and the genre marks the first appearance of Hawaiian steel guitar in country music.
Once musicians began electrifying their steel guitars – initially by figuring out how to play them through radios, or so the story goes, we see a new innovation in 20th century dance music: amplification.
Although we’re still some way off from acid techno here, previously all dance bands had performed acoustically – and loudly – to get their audience’s feet moving. Electric guitars were here now, opening up the potential for a certain hybridisation of hillbilly honky tonk and African-American boogie woogie that could change everything.
Drums, too, had a renewed purpose in western swing – nailing down a strong backbeat that would only became more pronounced and central with further evolutions in dance music.
And unlike the heavy balladeering of country, this music was dance music through and through. It proved phenomenally successful in pre-war America, which saw crowds of up to 10,000 throng at western swing dances in California.
America’s involvement in World War II had a curtailing influence on western swing and much musical development (dance-related or otherwise) during this period, as many of the key musicians enlisted, and a brutal wartime tax on nightclubs made public dances largely untenable. In retrospect, the genre now scans like something of a peculiarity – a kind of “cowboy jazz”, uniquely appropriate for the dialled-up quirkiness of Coen Bros movies – but it’s mostly fun, inventive and overlooked stuff that, like O Brother…, also makes a strong case for miscegenation rather than separatism as a driver of culture and innovation.
Certainly, country music would never again sound so informed by African-American music. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys included WC Handy’s St Louis Blues in their repertoire – would the late 20th Century equivalent of this have been Garth Brooks covering Public Enemy?!
After some time of deep work with any technology you stop thinking about the results as a discrete output, but as stages in a process, the process through which technology becomes embedded in you, and you become embedded in the technology: together, you are building a cybernetic system for solving problems and creating things. If you only focus on those things – the discrete outputs – then you are taking the narrow view. The longer-term impacts, and the most interesting stuff, are happening at the level of the system, where new forms of life are constantly being created and evolved.
A stronger understanding of the fundamentals of the system, unmediated by layers of abstraction, intensifies the integration, and the scale of what can be accomplished through mutual adaption of human to device and device to human.
This is why the work of electronic music researchers like the ones we are featuring today feels so powerful and direct. They have removed the digital interfaces and representations standing in the way between them and sound, and in doing so, tapped into something primitive, the ancient foundations of our technological present, a folkways of subatomic cultures. This is also why their music provides an excellent soundtrack for your favourite cyberpunk epiphanies.
Indeed. When we listen to its opener, Inward Fathoms, we are reminded of the psychedelic sketches of 1970s library music, or even Basil Kirchin’s symphonies for an industrial age, but playing over the the operations of a multi-dimensional linear programming operation which, upon being solved, allocates R&D funds in a way that enhances productivity, preserves the environment and guarantees the quality of life of industrial workers.
Imagine William Gibson’s hallucination of cyberspace, but sang in machine code instead of new wave english. Or even better, buy the album from Dark Entries, and flip out.
We ourselves did substantial levels of flipping out in response to Palmbomen II’sRVNG release some time ago. Here was a soundtrack for the emotions cracking through the black ops circuitry of an X Files universe, or the fucked-up psycho-tech dynamics of a Bladerunner sequel directed by David Lynch. His Center Parcs tape collab with Betonkust continues in the same vein, melodies full of innocence interspersed with beats brimming with dissonant danger and distorted threat, fairy tales to prepare childroid algorithms in for a world of hacking bogeymen, corporate takeover step-mothers and ravenous werewolf super-intelligences.
Meshes of Voice was a bulletproof pairing of two artists who are undeniably at the top of their game right now. Jenny has a new project about to drop anytime now, while Susanna has already fired back with her new album, Triangle. Norwegian improv legends Supersilent also guest on this magnificent piece of work.
Here is a sampler for it:
Susanna has also contributed an exclusive mix for us:
We think it is amazing that right now at this moment there are thousands of highly educated people chucking invisible objects down underground tunnels, in the hope that said objects will collide against other invisible objects generating barely perceptible signals containing glimpses into the secrets of the universe. That’s epic, psychedelic and inspiring. We like it.
Consequently, we love the music which captures the mystery of those scientific activities- this is what today’s post is about.
First, we have Nicola Ratti’sPressure Drop, which came out in Where to Now earlier in the year, and has become one of our favorite records of 2016.
We have previously described his music as quantum juke. In it, we hear subatomic infra-worlds at the cutting edge of knowledge where illumination and hallucination dance an abstract tango. The rhythms and melodies stretch in front of our eyes, phase-shifting between stochastic jitter and deterministic structure.
When we listen from the right dimension, it is as if we had solved the tesseract at the end of Interstellar. The wave function of the sonic system collapses into concrete moments of funk, melancholy and drama made even more amazing by the fact they come from a place where we thought there was nothing, from a place that we didn’t even know existed, until we started listening.
We have become sort of obsessed with Gunnar Haslam’s Lebesgue Measures. If we had to summarise it functionally, we’d say that it is probably the best-selling record at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student union, where they filed it under “jazz funk”. We could also mention its aesthetic lineage: Carl Craig, Drexciya, Autechre, Plastikman, Squarepusher.
But this taxonomical exercise isn’t enough. We need to infer a theory, the beautiful equation we sense at the centre of this album, and we look for it like rabid fans in a Bolaño novel. The most obvious candidate is the Lebesgue method for calculating the integral of a curve (the area under it) by partitioning its range, to which the title of the record alludes. But that simply shifts the question. What is being measured here? What exists in the space under the curve? Lebesgue Measures, the record, isn’t just a tool, it is a framework.
The titles of its songs hint at infinity, things that can only be integrated approximately, by assuming convergences in lands beyond. We can only run so far. We eventually give up on our quest for meaning and stare at those white spaces in the horizon where Gunnar Haslam’s melodies soar like flashes of improvisation in a mathematical proof, logical leaps over chasms of impossibility, loops that close loops with a mystical move.
Troller return to 20JFG with their latest album Graphic. Today we visit the six minute centrepiece of the album, Storm Maker.
Storm Maker proffers a glimpse into the dreamworld Austin we yearn to visit. In terms of anchoring a psychic picture of a place, theirs is a gloriously fatalistic southern American counterpoint to Lynch’s brisk, northern, 50s, idyl/horror-show. It is a world of yearning, of passion so white hot it can only manifest itself in molasses-slow waltzes.
Witness Storm Maker’s operatic vocal; at times emotive to the point of incomprehensibility. A wall of pure longing, a sound powerful enough to draw us across the Atlantic and into their perfectly preserved dreamworld. A world of sparsely populated clubs, spare lighting and endless, cosmic sadness beneath the glasses of its patrons. A beautiful purgatory of the damaged and innocent. A sympathetic portrait of the psychic trauma of dominance — that Lynch painted so well for us non-Americans.
Disasterpeace is so hot right now. He makes video-games soundtracks that sound like Brian Eno or Eric Satie after being projected into pixelated universes of wonder and mystery with a Tron-style digitisation device.
Today we want to tell you about his most recent work for Hyper Light Drifter, a Kickstarter-funded indie video game that sits somewhere between Fez (which Disasterpeace also soundtracked), Zelda, Dark Souls and a bullet-hell shooter from hell.
Leaving aside the brilliant geometries of its combat, and the beautiful, devastated classicism of its 8-bit landscapes, our favourite thing about Hyper Light Drifter is its language. Almost all communication between the game and the player are mediated with glyphs, icons and hard to fathom maps. The result could have been confusing, but is in fact hypnotic, and arresting. As we zig-zag down the ruins of HLD’s world, we feel like characters in Samuel R. Delany’s Einstein Intersection, navigating the poetic wasteland of an alien culture that’s doubly dead because there’s no-one left to understand it. We do our best to feel, with emotions that are simultaneously embodied and abstract.
Disasterpeace’s music is a perfect fit for this experience. The piano melodies represent the sadness and pain of harmonious civilisations of cuddly furries overrun and massacred by reptilian hordes, while its synths brim with child-like curiosity, boosting the pleasure centre that kicks off whenever we disappear down a secret corridor, wondering what’s next.
Disasterpeace also created the soundtrack for sleeper horror hit It Follows, a great update of and love letter to John Carpenter that explores the horror of being chased by a relentless, invisible force across the ruins of a housing-crisis-bombed Detroit.
Disasterpeace himself tips his hat to the master quite a few times during the soundtrack, which is of course a good thing. Distortion and putrescent ambient atmospheres are jacked up, and a metallic cacophony clangs while we are pursued by an invisible legion of zombie ghost demons. There are also moments of eerie beauty, as the protagonists wander the aftermath of economic disaster, trashed houses and the charnel-houses where dreams go to die and, of course, wonderful symphonies of mechano-gothic allure and dread, just like this: