Every once in a while, I ask myself as a critic if this analytical approach I employ when I interact with “sound” distracts from what makes “music” so much fun. Sure, a critical approach requires and, more importantly, allows for an open mind. Yet what, if any, benefits come as a result of rigorous open-mindedness? At what point does open-mindedness become empty-mindedness?
Conversely, does an expansive palate actually help negotiate taste or does it politicize simplicity? These issues perpetually pop up into my head when I write reviews and features or even just recommend music. As a fanatic of music, however, I cannot give up on this aesthetic quest. Still, part of what makes music so much fun is how it creates new emotional outlets and challenges problematic or stale forms of expression. Sure, most of what you’ll find in this column transcends or even outright obliterates convention; yeah, “that” kind of music will feature here frequently, but my point here is that it need not be a challenge. In fact, I hope that this column will provide a free space in which music can take on new forms that better reflect how humans interact with “sound” on a daily basis.
Obviously this means that “noise” will be a major topic of interest here, yet I also deem this space safe for “conventional” music and I will frequently examine pop as a creative outlet that is just as powerful as avant-garde. That said, what I propose here is sort of a post-modern “re-construction” rather than a “deconstruction;” a space for “creation” rather than “destruction;” a space for “composition” rather than “decomposition;” a space in which we can freely examine our relationship with our favorite thing: music.
Below, you’ll find blurbs on three experimental releases from 2013 that all in some way fit into this experimental space:
Total Folklore- Dan Friel
I can’t think of a single record in recent years that combines pure pop with harsh noise as blissfully as Dan Friel’s Total Folklore does. Twelve-minute opener “Ulysses” is an epic power-pop anthem that pulses and thrashes and seethes and writhes. Its abrasive instrumentation, comprised entirely of electronics, provides sonic tension whereas its orchestral melody provides cathartic release. Total Folklore proceeds with four two-song couplets, split-up by “Intermissions,” which, along with its title, gives Total Folklore an “episodic,” “fantastic,” “mythic” quality. What makes Total Folklore such a thrill in this regard is how active it is; it would make a phenomenal film score, yet unlike traditional film scores that provide artificial tension through heavily orchestrated tones, Total Folklore teems with feedback, which adds another layer of suspense. Initially a challenge, Total Folklore pays off in immense ways, which increase incrementally with each listen.
These next couple records experiment with process and performance with fruitful results:
New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light- Colin Stetson
Those familiar with Colin Stetson and his second body, his bass saxophone, are cognizant of his modus operandi: Stetson makes grotesque bodily noises through several meters of brass as he simultaneously sings, bangs on his key pads, and churns out cyclical melodic phrases. Oh, and of course he records all of this with zero overdubs. New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, as you sequentially minded readers can probably tell, is Colin Stetson’s third solo record on which he performs and records this way. Literalists luck out here as well, as To See More Light is Stetson’s brightest solo record yet. Frequent collaborator and loyal comrade Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, with his gorgeous falsetto, contrasts well with Stetson’s abrasiveness on each featured track. That said, To See More Light is Stetson’s most dynamic and vast record yet. Moments of transcendence come at an expense; Stetson and Vernon both rigorously test physical and bodily limits (Vernon even death growls on a song), which elevates its majesty. Perhaps Stetson planned for this kind of finale because New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, allegedly Stetson’s final record in this series, finds Stetson at his boldest as he translates his signature corporeal drones into beautiful cosmic landscapes.
Now While it’s Still Warm Let Us Pour in All the Mystery- Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke/Oren Ambarchi
Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke, and Oren Ambarchi each have quite a curriculum vitae. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Haino, the group’s “lead singer,” if you can even place any of these musicians into a role, has experimented with avant theatre as well as sound installation. Jim O’Rourke is most notorious for his unconventional solo folk records as well as his idiosyncratic guitar work in Sonic Youth. Drummer and guitarist Oren Ambarchi has collaborated with drone metal groups Sun O))) and Boris and has performed in several of his own noise projects. If you just looked up all three of these musicians artists individually (as I just did), you’ll also discover that these experimental troubadours also frequently collaborate with each other! And my good gosh what a collaboration! As with much of these guys’ solo projects, improvisation plays a key role in this group’s process, yet this ain’t some formulaic jam session; these guys improvise simultaneously and it still sounds dynamic and extraordinarily well composed. This latest record finds these veterans at a peak of collaborative improv; you can tell this trio has performed together so intimately that each can read each other’s mind. No single instrumental voice overshadows, yet each brings its own appeal as flutes flutter, drums and cymbals crash, voices yell, guitars shred, feedback crackles. This kind of enactment requires patience, a patience that challenges contemporary pre-recorded performance. Haino/O’Rourke/Ambarchi reminds us of what a “band” is and can do yet in an egalitarian way contest traditional composition.
Keep your eyes and ears open for next week’s edition of Free Space in which I cover five additional experimental highlights of this year so far.
—Free Space is written by Jackson Scott. It updates every Saturday.
quality. What makes Total Folklore such a thrill in this regard is how active it is; it would make a phenomenal film score, yet unlike traditional film scores that provide artificial tension through heavily orchestrated tones, Total Folklore teems with feedback, which adds another layer of suspense. Initially a challenge, Total Folklore pays off in immense ways, which increase incrementally with each listen.