artifacts of the no-audience underground: the skull mask and claus poulsen on striate cortex

September 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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The Skull Mask – Sahomerio

(3″ CD-r in handmade packaging, Striate Cortex, S.C.53, edition of 50)

Claus Poulsen – Terrestial

(2 x 3″ CD-r boxed in handmade packaging, Striate Cortex, S.C.51, edition of 45)

Regular readers will be familiar with my role as UK champion of The Skull Mask – a terrific project from my Mexican cousin Miguel Pérez.  I refer newcomers to the blurb used by Striate Cortex head honcho Andy Robinson in the publicity for this release:

Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, is a city with a murderous reputation. The war between rival drug cartels and the police made it, until recently, the homicide capital of the world. Life is tough for a civilian just trying to raise a family. I’m sure you can imagine that if you found yourself in that situation you would need a means of catharsis, a way of making sense of it all. Well, my friend Miguel Pérez lives there and he escapes through noise.

A background in the metal scene of the 90s taught him musicianship – he is an exceptional guitarist – but it was his discovery of noise and improv that set him free. A Stakhanovite work rate has led to dozens of releases under several pseudonyms, mainly through the netlabel Oracle he co-runs with Pablo Mejia, a noise artist based in the Dominican Republic.

I came to his work via the Culver-esque roars of La Mancha Del Pecado but my favourite of his projects is the solo, acoustic guitar of The Skull Mask. These improvised, psychedelic ragas are influenced by ritual music from around the world, including the shamanistic tradition of his native country, filtered through his own experiences of the Mexican wilderness.

It is beautiful, compelling, raw, ego dissolving stuff. To listen to The Skull Mask is to stand facing the hot, abrasive desert wind.

What a masterpiece of the copywriters’ art, eh?  I wonder who wrote that.  Oh:

Rob H, Leeds, UK, August 2012

*Ahem*, moving swiftly on…  The package is awesome:  printed 3” CD-r in its own wallet with beautiful pro-printed insert featuring evocative smoke photo, all contained in a handmade fold-out cardboard parcel tied up with string.  Acknowledging that the title refers to a type of incense used in purification rituals, Andy has thoughtfully included a little bundle of incense sticks in each box.  Why not make an offering to your favourite pagan spirit whilst this is on in the background?  This release is so cool that it even smells good.

Before getting to the music there is, perhaps, a short discussion to be had about to what extent improvised music can be edited.  Do you need to hear the whole performance, dead ends and mistakes included?  I sometimes think the, say, two minutes of genius at the end of a passage only makes sense in the context of the six minutes of meandering that led to it.  With some improv, especially groups – Spoils & Relics spring to mind – these transitional periods can have an enthralling, alchemical mystery to them as the band looks for and eventually settles on a new groove or texture.  Following an act through this process is one of the rewarding joys of improvised music.

Or should we just cut to the chase?  Are the minutes of genius all we need?  Can we jettison the intermediary passages as just so much rehearsal?  This is how, for example, the great Vibracathedral Orchestra albums were assembled.  Mick et al had a great ear for start and end points and also had the vision to see individual tracks rise out of the whole.  Much as I still love to hear the crescendo-plateau-fade of a full length 45 minute live tape, the discipline exercised over something so unruly and amorphous as VCO performance is one of the things that makes these records essential.

Andy has decided to take this second path.  Over half the source material provided by Miguel has been excised leaving five extracts totalling 19 minutes.  Some of the edits are severe, brutal even, but all are fully authorised by Miguel and, after a few listens, I have to say Andy’s decisions cannot be faulted.

This is heroic stuff, recorded simply and cheaply with a red-raw honesty (occasionally a ‘chk-chk-chk’ noise can be heard high in the right channel, no doubt an artefact of the recording, but it stands in for the cicadas of Miguel’s beloved Mexican wilderness and inadvertently adds to the heat-haze atmosphere). Miguel was amused to see this described as ‘bluesy’ in Vital Weekly but during Part Three, the epic nine minute centrepiece, it isn’t hard to imagine him standing at the crossroads, his loose-fingered raga whipping the desert dust into strange, dancing anthropomorphic shapes.

The pieces either side illustrate the expressive power of Miguel’s technique: sore-eyed from the campfire or crackling and mysterious or solemn and contemplative.  In isolating these moods Andy has given us a new way of appreciating the rolling whole.  He has somehow managed to carve smoke.  An essential purchase, obviously.

Also new and noteworthy and issued in a painfully tiny edition is Terrestial by Claus Poulsen, probably best known around these parts for Star Turbine, his collaboration with Sindre Bjerga.  Packaged in a thickly painted jewellery box, the like of which housed the aforementioned Star Turbine release, this is a double 3” CD-r set, each tucked into its own windowed envelope accompanied by a pro-printed insert and, a shocking first for SC as far as I know, a Bandcamp download code!  Well did you evah?!  The shape of things to come?  Who knows…

The music is unashamedly spacey electronica: epic synth washes, chattering and bibbling, languid shifts in texture.  Apart from some late bursts of noise, perhaps, this could have been released in the mid-90s on Pete Namlook’s FAX label.  High praise from me.

The entire of the first disc is given over to the 19 minute title track (no, I don’t know where the third ‘r’ has gone either) which is a sweeping account of a generation starship‘s cruise through unimaginable spans of nothingness.  The production is careful, balanced, detailed – exquisite.  The second disc contains four shorter tracks, noisier but just as disciplined in their construction, which mark the arrival of the craft at its destination planet and the exploration of the seas and caverns found there.  There is even a party of sorts to celebrate touchdown: second track ‘Heat’ has a beat (very rare on SC releases!) but its dubby clatter only serves to accentuate the eeriness of the new surroundings.  Accomplished and involving stuff.

Buy both releases here.

artifacts of the no-audience underground: star turbine – equilibrium

January 9, 2012 at 8:34 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Star Turbine – Equilibrium (Striate Cortex, S.C.44.)

It seems fitting to begin this year’s reviews with the latest from last year’s best label, especially when the release in question is of such impeccable quality.  Take note everyone: Andy Robinson’s Striate Cortex has not only set the bar ridiculously high but also nonchalantly hopped over it whilst the rest of us were taking off our tracksuits.

What we have here is a square, black presentation box – the sort of thing a piece of jewellery might come packaged in – encircled with a sash bearing the title and name of the band.  Sliding this off and removing the lid (decorated inside with gold marbled paper) reveals a square of fluff.  This secures two mini-CDrs decorated with inky abstractions and housed within their own dinky black paper wallets.  There are also three card inserts decorated with similar patterns on one side and the details of the release on the other.  It is a remarkable object.  I opened it gingerly, with a slack-jawed sense of wonder, knowing that Andy constructed each of these packages himself.  All one hundred of them.  Fortunately, the care, attention to detail and beauty evident in the packaging is justified by the music.

Star Turbine is a long-distance collaboration between ubiquitous force-for-the-good Sindre Bjerga and similarly busy multi-instrumentalist Claus Poulsen.  The first of the two discs contains five shortish tracks of droning atmospherics augmented by guitarish scrapes and found sounds dropped in, looped and left to abrade each other.  Whilst neither dubby nor minimal, these tracks contain a convincing evocation of space.  Whether this is abyssal blackness or infinite sky depends, I guess, on the mood of the listener.

The second disc contains two long tracks that explore similar territory but do so in a darker, more circumspect way.  The emptiness remains but the agoraphobia is pitched a little higher in the mix.  Could that hissing sound be a leak in your spacesuit?  As with many of Andy’s releases, the compelling depth and mystery of this music is revealed on repeat listens.  It stands up to scrutiny, in fact it benefits from it. 

The track titles invoke science terminology – ‘wave detector’, ‘molecular cluster’ etc. – in the same way that early techno used to do: to add a futuristic sheen rather than to refer to anything concrete.  I suspect this is knowingly tongue-in-cheek as the game is given away both by the title of the track ‘Chromatic Underwear (Polyatomic Molecules)’ and by the burst of muted ‘Jupiter Jazz’ style joy-synth that makes a surprise appearance at its conclusion. 

Whilst the track titles can be put to one side, the concept of ‘equilibrium’ has more interesting structural consequences.  This is not equilibrium in the sense of the solid-state, unchanging drones championed by, say, the underrated band midwich.  This is equilibrium maintained by the delicate balancing of competing forces, made possible by a combination of seemingly coincidental factors, the removal of any one of which would send the marbles crashing down like a game of cosmic Kerplunk.  There are various ‘quantity theory’ games that can be played by combining the elements of this release: are the two discs in equilibrium?  The tracks on each disc?  Each track within itself?  Over the whole track length or does every moment have its own balance?  It is an enormously impressive act, like a snail crawling up the blade of a knife. 

Aside: this is something that I actually saw happen back when I kept an allotment and grew some of my own fruit and vegetables.  Enjoying a break from my labours, I was amazed to spot a snail ascending the cutting edge of a foot-long knife I had plunged point-first into the soil at my feet.  This slow, death-defying glide was hypnotising – a living metaphor I knew would come in handy some day.  The mud-filled cuts on my hands attested to the blade’s sharpness.  When the snail reached the handle I did not throw it over the fence onto the road (the usual fate for such creatures) but, impressed, placed it on a cabbage leaf in the compost bin instead.

*Ahem*, anyway – to conclude: the fact that Equilibrium can be had for a mere five quid plus postage strikes me as a fantastic bargain.  In these straightened times we are all after ‘value for money’ and, whilst it might seem an odd concept to apply to art, I have to say this release has it in spades.  A beautifully packaged object that will repay your attention many times over.  Need I go on?

More details here.  Buy here.

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