The noise underground has been flirting with techno more than ever recently. RA's Justin Farrar introduces some of the essential acts.
Back in January, as part of RA's Breaking through series, I profiled American producer Ren Schofield. His debut full-length under the Container moniker, released via the Spectrum Spools imprint, was one of last year's finest unrefined slabs of leftfield techno. Schofield talked about his roots in the American noise underground, and how the Container aesthetic is shaped by all the static-smeared drone, unruly feedback and broken electronics characterizing past projects.
Even more intriguing is the revelation that an increasing number of his fellow noise musicians are also taking a keen interest in the manipulation of techno, house and other electronic dance music templates. Like him, they've wandered the outer limits of sound and are now applying the data they've accumulated about texture, timbre, rhythm and form to the production of beats. Many of these artists—Diamond Catalog, Frak, Unicorn Hard-On and Laser Poodle, to name just a few—appear on Fake Sound Routine. This is an ongoing series of cassette compilations Schofield puts out on his I Just Live Here label. Each volume is awfully limited, yet they're a great way to acclimate oneself to these musicians' collective aesthetic: considerably lo-fi, quite often punkish and irreverent, rooted in analog hardware and 110% eccentric. Not surprisingly, these folks tend to operate well outside house and techno's respective (but often overlapping) communities.
Though Schofield acknowledges something is afoot, he refuses to hitch it to the word "trend" (much less its obnoxious little brother "microtrend"). There are two good reasons for this. The first concerns the anarchic streak coursing through modern noise. "Folks who play 'noise' do so because there are no rules, requirements or expectations to always be a certain way," explains Leslie Keffer, a longtime purveyor of noise who began creating technoid weirdness a couple years back. "They will always explore and interpret all genres. It's what makes them and the genre unique." Indeed, curiosity refreshes itself at an accelerated clip for Keffer and her peers. Today, it's techno and house, but six months from now these voracious creatures could very well be mangling an entirely different style of music.
The second reason revolves around the fact that working with beats isn't necessarily a novel idea, something Schofield is quick to point out. While the current "scene" has witnessed an exciting uptick in the number of newfangled producers, a short list of unsung innovators going back a decade can be compiled. Additionally, there's the larger historical evolution of noise to think about; the music's industrial ancestors (Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Einstürzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire) were as interested in beats as they were freeform drone and other arrhythmic tactics. Thus, organizing sound around groove is not an emergent trait but rather an old chromosome lurking inside noise's double helix. Sometimes it's dormant, other times wildly active.
This is where this feature comes into play. It's an introduction to a handful of the key producers belonging to the something of which Schofield speaks. The list below is by no means exhaustive, yet I believe it's a worthy front door through which the inquisitive are welcome to enter.
If you read my article on Container, then you're familiar with Schofield's partner, as well as key influence, Val Martino. As Unicorn Hard-On, she was one of the earliest of America's 21st-century noise artists to mess around with beats in earnest. Her boldness and audacity cannot be overstated. Several years back, when noise was dominated by aggro boys and pummeling distortion freakouts, she began developing a sound that brings together her love of sheer sonic power and party-time dance jams. Martino's productions are massive, thunderous and out there; at the same time, they're remarkably social and engaging, hurling forth as they do a brain-zap array of neon deliciousness: classic electro, cheerleader moxie, minimal techno, teen pop, glitter rock, Wax Trax!, even schaffel. Moreover, the many ways in which she loops her own voice—oftentimes filtering it through a thick gauze of delay that lends it an "I know something you don't" effect—is subtle and masterful.
Since 2004-'05 Martino has recorded cassettes and CD-Rs for myriad labels, the most recent of which appear on her own Tangled Hares. Late last year Hot Releases and More Records co-released a Unicorn Hard-On/Container split 12-inch. Martino's contributions, "Persian Cats" and the wondrously bizarre "Wildfire Girls," just might be her best tracks yet. Looking to the future, she's due to unload an album on Spectrum Spools—details forthcoming.
To define Frak as forefathers implies they in some sense helped birth the current crop of noise-based producers. But this isn't really the case. Naming themselves after a Commodore 64 game, the Swedish trio of Jan Svensson, Johan Sturesson and Björn Isgren arrived so far ahead of the curve that they are, more than anything else, total aesthetic aberrations—genuine outsiders. Frak developed their marriage of acid robotics, analog-rich techno, DIY electronics and Residents-flavored absurdity in, get this, the late '80s, back when most everybody else on this list was a little spazz obsessed with poppin' wheelies and Cap'n Crunch. Nevertheless, they have been heartily embraced by their younger peers. Svensson in particular is revered as a maverick. In addition to Frak and host of other peculiar projects, he maintains Börft Records, which over the last three decades has contributed mightily to the evolution of underground cassette culture.
Frak's prolificacy feels pathological. They've dropped too many tapes, albums and singles to count. Among the outfit's older releases the Old Traka-Traka Party 12-inch and Hard Friends LP are representative of their perverse style. In a nice display of cross-generational teamwork, Frak is about to release a full-length, Muzika Electronic, on the essential Tulsa imprint Digitalis sometime before spring arrives.
In the introduction I pointed out how most of the artists spotlighted herein work outside techno culture. What also needs to be acknowledged is that each one possesses a unique orbital inclination to said culture. Frak's Jan Svensson, for example, was an ardent fan of the industrial-era extremism that also helped soundtrack the club scene during the rise of acid house and Detroit techno. Contrast this with the duo Diamond Catalog. Pat Maherr and Lala Conchita (who previously created noise under the name We) aren't influenced through firsthand contact with techno, but rather the music's ambient-like presence on our landscape, both physical and cultural. Instead of entering the club, says Conchita, she enjoys "standing outside late at night and listening to a bassy, 4/4 beat from a song that's smothered by buildings and combined with city sounds." This image—a tad hypnagogic, I must admit—reflects Diamond Catalog's debut LP Magnified Palette, a crudely psychedelic immersion in echo-soaked rhythm decay and atmospherics.
In addition to the album, NNA Tapes recently put out Magnified Palette Remixes. The cassette, not unlike the Fake Sound Routine series, features a who's who of noise and drone musicians getting their groove on, so to speak. Conchita and Maherr are also involved in several other relevant projects, including Expressway Yo-Yo Dieting, Untrance, Lyrels and Indignant Senility.
Originally a trio consisting of Brenden O'Keefe (Nimby), Daren Ho (Driphouse/Dariius) and Jeff Witscher (Rene Hell/Secret Abuse), Cuticle more or less bridges the Fake Sound Routine gang with their fuzzier counterparts at 100% Silk, many of whom also emerged from America's sprawling psych/drone/DIY underground. The outfit's vinyl debut, last year's Confectioner Beats, came out on the latter imprint. Yet its disheveled and at times impudent demolition of Kosmische-stained house and disco—what O'Keefe cleverly tags "blown parameters dance music"—betrays the musicians' respective roots in heavier noise techniques. Ho and Witscher subsequently bailed (both are chronic collaborators active in a ridiculous number of projects), and left O'Keefe as Cuticle's sole pilot.
In January 100% Silk's parent label Not Not Fun released the follow-up to Confectioner Beats. Titled Mother Rhythm Earth Memory, the LP finds O'Keefe employing intensely processed vocals and gnarled ideas imported from electro-soul. These qualities draw Cuticle closer to label mates LA Vampires, Xander Harris and Sex Worker. That said, the tracks still exude a passion for maximalist rupture and "hijacked jumpcut," qualities that are well removed from the gooey psychedelia most 100% Silk and Not Not Fun records come slathered in. After all, O'Keefe used to dig grindcore.
A perfect encapsulation of the No Fun Acid sound is to be found right at the opening of "No Fun Acid 2." The track (from the This Is No Fun Acid 2 12-inch, which also features a Gavin Russom remix) erupts with an aggressive blast of what sounds like a modular synth drilling its way into the heart of power electronics. Before you know, that classic squelch materializes, but it's been distorted: thicker static, less frenetic, more metallic and robo-rock, like a classic Silver Apples groove sped up oh so slightly. Reminiscent of Frak, Carlos Giffoni applies his background in analog-based electronics to the remodeling of acid's core components, which are themselves expressions of the same technology. "I came into this music with no rules established," he admits. "I came to it straight from noise/abstract/synth music. Besides the basic template of having beats and acid lines, everything else was open for me."
Giffoni's No Fun Acid has been active for about three years now, with numerous titles already under his belt. The next release of note is the Evidence 12-inch, a joint venture from Mexican Summer and Joel Ford and Daniel Lopatin's Software imprint that will arrive not long after this piece is published. On it the producer intensifies his adventurousness with the addition of vocals, pop song structures and piano and keyboards courtesy of Laurel Halo.
When I interviewed Schofield and Martino for the Container piece we bonded over our love for Lindsay Karty, whose VIKI project emerged from the same Michigan "sub-underground" as Mammal (partner Gary Beauvais), Wolf Eyes, Max Cloud, Steve Kenney and Hive Mind. In the very early '00s, she coughed up a string a CD-Rs and tapes that were pioneering in their fusion of junkyard punk and battering-ram beats, UR style. At the time, techno and noise were actively mingling: Kid606/Tigerbeat6, DJ Scud's Ambush crew, Pan Sonic, etc. But Karty and her fellow Michiganders sounded utterly unlike any of that stuff. Rewiring broken analog electronics so they spit out all manner of syncopated savagery and dubby harshness, they shared far more in common with the lo-fi scum of Royal Trux than they did IDM's glowing laptops and high-tech software.
Karty took a few years off from producing, but luckily for us, she has reactivated VIKI under the slightly altered alias VIKTORIA. As for older material, the self-titled rarities compilation on Beauvais' Animal Disguise Recordings is essential. The label is also due to release a full-length, Escape from Detroit. Besides their solo projects, Karty and Beauvais collaborate under the name Midlife Vacation.
The aforementioned Leslie Keffer is one of American noise's more restless and charismatic individuals. Over the last decade, she has subverted a wide swath of instruments and non-instruments, from radios and Walkmans to treated guitars and synthesizers. Possibly inspired by her close friend and fellow Nashvillian Martino, she began to reconcile her avant-garde tendencies with her unabashed love for dance pop and club music. She gives a marvelously simple reason for this move: "I love to dance and most of my friends do, too. And besides, who wants to listen to noise all the time?" Ironically, this simplicity doesn't extend to Keffer's productions. While initial beat-based experiments were indeed minimal affairs, more recent work reflects her growing interest in applying the detail-oriented decadence of dance pop production to her stridently DIY music-making process.
One of the first records in Keffer's sprawling discography to fully document her new sound is the Give It Up 12-inch, released on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace! label in 2010. Even then her love of melody, velvety vocal flourishes and richly layered electro-acoustics is evident. Currently, she is busy working on a second platter titled Finally, Caves! Also coming down the pipe is a full-length cassette for No Kings.
James Donadio is probably the most aesthetically isolated of the artists who comprise this list. His under-the-radar Prostitutes project hails from Cleveland, Ohio, a city that has churned out an impressive breadth of modern noise makers, among them Emeralds, Bee Mask, fluxmonkey, Sam Goldberg and Skin Graft. But despite the rich scene around him, Donadio's creeping, skeletal beats feel like the product of isolation, of a loner who'd rather hang at home with moody Chain Reaction and Tresor classics than pal around at the local watering hole. There's also an unsettling gloom underpinning his productions, no doubt inspired by his background as bassist in a variety of wall-of-noise rock bands, including The Flat Can Co. and Speaker\Cranker. "When I make music, either in a band or solo, it's all about being raw, minimal and immediate," he says. "I tend to gravitate towards those parts of my record collection for inspiration, whether it's Septic Death, Pan Sonic or The Dead C."
So far Donadio has released two titles, Prostitutes and Prostitutes II, both on his own stabUdown imprint. Weaving a consistently woozy vibe, the producer demonstrates an uncanny ability to blend the grainier strands of minimal techno to neo-Chrome dance rock. Donadio is currently working on a third tentatively titled Hot LZ.
Unsurprisingly, I learned about Laser Poodle from Container and Unicorn Hard-On. Both are big fans of the Amsterdam duo. In fact, all three toured together for a good chunk of last year. Johann Kauth and Jonathan Mikkelsen are longtime drummers with diverse backgrounds in both underground rock and electronics. This goes a long way to explaining their style: cruddy, low-tech pointillism erected using drum machines, mono synth, cheap keyboards, looped effects, sequencers and what the pair call "acoustic percussion." What's more, their grooves are freely improvised. Kauth and Mikkelsen don't compose tracks so much as record and edit extended jam sessions. This lends the music a rambunctious and shaggy feel, as if it was produced by a couple of overly caffeinated hippie-punks obsessed with Manuel Göttsching's E2-E4.
Laser Poodle have released three cassettes to date: Coyote, 40 Watts and Lupus. The first two are out of print, sadly, but the third was just put out by D'Artagnan Records, an avant-everything label based in Denmark. Mikkelsen and Kauth have plans to drop a full-length some time in 2012. In the meantime, try to catch their live show. For a couple of dudes standing over a table full of wires and gear, they are awfully magnetic and exciting.