wired for sound part 16: culverised

August 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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culver & waz hoola – maps of war (matching head 153)

Culver & La Mancha del Pecado – Trans-Atlantic Harsh Terror Drones (matching head 174)

culver/seppuku – Dedicated To Soledad Miranda (At War With False Noise, atwar043)

Inseminoid – Old Blue Lass (Finite Change)

Two things: firstly, I know the purists will be upset that I’m including mentions of a CD and a CD-r in the previously tape-only ‘wired for sound’ series of articles.  Well, the reason is that Lee Stokoe is so tape that all his releases should come on cassette even if they don’t.  You’ll see what I mean.  Secondly, the Inseminoid cover is even less SFW than those above, so I’m keeping it under the counter.  OK, on with the show…

I sometimes approach a parcel from Lee Stokoe with trepidation.  I don’t pick it up gingerly, expecting it to explode, of course.  What I mean is that, after recognizing the handwriting, I may pause and think ‘whoo boy, am I ready for this?’  This may surprise readers familiar with RFM’s usual fawning reverence when it comes to Lee’s projects, especially Culver.  Is not the arrival of such a package reason for unbridled joy?  Well, not entirely.  Lee’s releases demand concentration, repeat listens, high volume – in a word: commitment.  Taking them seriously is hard work. And I am, dear reader, nothing if not a lazyboned procrastinator.

However, a week or two after plunging into this cold, dark sea I find myself familiar with the tides and currents at work and am able to safely tread water over these murky depths.  Last week I caught myself thinking: ‘great, that Inseminoid album is just the right length for the commute to work.’  I had achieved a familiar state of mind: a sort of meditative conviction (temporary, but sincere when held) that Lee’s work makes everything else seem like irrelevant frippery, decadent and unnecessary.  I had been culverised.

So how does he do this?  There is a working method common to most of these releases and, indeed, to many other Culver albums.  Lee starts with some kind of triggering sound – an anxious whine, a slow throb, a surprisingly delicate tape-loop – then erodes it to nothing, dissolving it in corrosive waves of entropic noise.  This noise is almost exclusively bass-heavy rumble, a slow-motion fire.  Usually the only treble is the ubiquitous tape hiss accounted for, quite deliberately, in the composition and as much an instrument as the guitars and keyboards that, presumably, supply the rest.  So there is a beginning, but no middle, and not even an end as such – you get 30-45 minutes then it stops.  No crescendo, no satisfyingly complete thematic variations, no cathartic release.  Nothing straightforwardly ‘musical’ at all.

That is not to say it is featureless.  On first or second listen, especially if you aren’t prepared to be disciplined, it sounds like being on a double-decker bus idling at a junction.  Your patience and concentration are rewarded, however, as changes in tone and texture reveal themselves.  Like a giant sturgeon moving slowly, and apparently without effort, at the bottom of a lake.  Like waking in a seemingly pitch-black room and gradually distinguishing objects as your eyes adjust to the dark.

And it is dark.  When Nietzsche said: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” (from Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146, 1886 – God bless Wikipedia) he forgot to mention that as well as gazing back this is the noise the abyss will be making.  This is the soundtrack to a horrifying, Lovecraftian existentialism: the universe is unimaginably hostile, not in intention – it has none, but in its utter indifference.  The affectlessness is what is so frightening.

Interestingly, and in my humble opinion, this poses a problem for Lee’s visual style.  His aesthetic is derived from his interest in the transgressive.  He is, for example, a student of exploitation cinema and the packaging of his releases is informed by his love of horror film and, increasingly, the pre-internet history of pornography.  This leads to covers that are, at best, unnerving abstract collages or, at worst, the kind of morally dubious filth that a family blog such as this forces you to click on surreptitiously.  My contention is that associating this music with this imagery is simply unnecessary.  Five minutes in its company will convince you of its seriousness and all the porn does is cheapen the impact; it actually distracts you from the blankness which is its ultimate strength.  I dunno what Lee can do about this, of course, and how he wants to wrap his stuff is entirely up to him.  For what it’s worth, I like his graphics anyway.

There is a similar problem for Lee’s collaborators.  He features on many split releases – two of the four above, for example – and the question for the non-Culver half is always: how do we compete with the abyss?  Take Seppuku, featured on the excellent At War With False Noise CD (trainspotter note: the title given above comes from the AWWFN website and is nowhere mentioned on the release itself).  Their sound is monstrously heavy – a grisly hybrid of doom metal and power electronics – and terrific stuff on its own terms.  However, compared to the preceding half-hour of Culver it appears childishly theatrical.  Camp, even.  ‘Hush with all the screaming,’ I found myself thinking, ‘don’t they know I’ve just stumbled out of the Total Perspective Vortex?’  La Mancha del Pecado fares better as the B-side of the amusingly titled ‘Trans-Atlantic Harsh Terror Drones’ (nice bit of self-parody there) by, well, sounding more like Culver.

The two collaborative recordings are just as arresting.  Maps of War is by Lee and Waz Hoola, head honcho of Infinite Exchange records and the evil genius responsible for my favourite drone piece of recent times.  Both parts are built around a sly, slow throbbing which adds an interesting rhythmic element to the ominous rumbling.  Wholly involving.

Inseminoid is a duo of Lee and George Proctor of Mutant Ape and Turgid Animal.  Track one follows the Culver blueprint outlined above: triggering loop, buried in noise, 34 minutes.  However the tonal range is a little wider than usual so you get more of a ‘wall noise’ experience (a term everybody seems to have learnt from As Loud As Possible magazine).  I love the helicopter-blade thwapping, like the soundtrack of a badly loaded film strip punctured by the projector sprockets.  You also get a proper ‘end’ as the last few minutes quiet down and fade out.  Track two appears to have been recorded live, is half the length and slightly more agitated.  The audience is denied a cathartic conclusion by the performance cutting abruptly to a girl-group pop song.  Apologies for not recognising it but I’d guess it was The Sugarbabes as Lee is their most unlikely fan.  I’ll end on that incongruous note…

Matching Head has no website, likewise the mysterious Finite Change.  Try Lee direct: barely legible contact details can be read here.  The Culver/Seppuku split can be had for a mere £5 from At War With False Noise.

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