Friday, May 27, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/27/11 - Zomes and Wire

Daniel Higgs isn’t the only member of Lungfish keeping busy in a solo context. Asa Osborne, whose cyclical yet expansive guitar work was an essential ingredient in the recipe of Lungfish’s singular sound, has been doing his own thing under the moniker of Zomes, releasing an eponymous debut on the Holy Mountain label back in 2008 and a brand new follow up on Thrill Jockey titled EARTH GRID. This isn’t the first time Osborne has stepped outside the bounds of Lungfish; he was a member of the ripe for rediscovery ‘90s outfit Tear Jerks with Charles Brohawn of The Tinklers, and along with Higgs recorded the sole record by The Pupils in 2002, a disc that I consider a late-period Dischord classic. Zomes is the first time to my knowledge that he’s done it all by his lonesome in the musical realm (he’s also a visual artist of distinction), and the sound he achieves is a study in droning, lo-fi simplicity. The fact that Osborne records direct to cassette deck is no gimmick. This very basic audio environment, with just a hint of background hiss, unifies perfectly with his instrumental intentions. His set-up is a primitive sounding drum machine and a pleasantly distorted keyboard/synthesizer, and the songs he creates are examinations of extremely basic melodies, established and repeated without dynamic shifts or other alterations, and they last until Osborne deems them “finished”. I use quotes on that last word since I honestly think all of the pieces on EARTH GRID could go on for hours, days or even for all eternity without losing an ounce of their integrity. This is one of the attributes of drone music that makes it so appealing; the effect of being enveloped and seduced by sounds that are shifting so gradually as to be almost imperceptible and desiring this state of affairs to go on forever if possible. Way out, man. This state of deep trance isn’t what Zomes sound like, but it is very relevant to how they operate. The 15 tracks here, most in the two to four minute range, are deliberately presented as “songs” and not the hugely expanding sonic fields that they could’ve been if he’d let the tape roll for an hour or so. Yes, that would’ve been a different ball of wax, but EARTH GRID is in no way lesser for its methodical examination of concise modal structures. Now the music on display here is frankly much different than what most people consider modern song form. Asa Osborne has an concept, but instead of draping it in variants that camouflage the idea or make the pill easier to swallow, he focuses specifically on his only concern; the directness, simplicity and stark repetitive beauty of his sound world. And for all that, I don’t think Zomes is a bit hard to listen to, so don’t be intimidated. It’s an eclectic endeavor, but it’s not difficult. I’ve just listened to EARTH GRID six times in a row and it gets more appealing and multi-faceted with each play. Many of the drum patterns feel like they derive from lost tribes of mechanical Indians and the buzzy, mildly hallucinatory tone of the synth is very addictive. It’s true that some of the song structures here aren’t particularly hard to envision as the same sort of bedrock that Lungfish utilized, so folks that miss the group might find this LP to be more than just a curious diversion. To speak further on Osborne’s former band, while I miss them greatly, I’m starting to get the feeling that it might just be a mistake to wish them back to active recording. They were undoubtedly a brilliant synthesis of ideas and personalities and their music helped to define an era (at least to my ears), but Osborne and Higgs (as well as drummer Nathan Bell’s work with his project Human Bell) have been showing a deep inclination to test uncharted waters, and a return to Lungfish’s essentially rock oriented styled could easily prove anti-climatic. Who knows? I for one love the flow of their progressions. But those who love Lungfish aren’t the only people who might get a charge from Zomes. Fans of the Residents, the Los Angeles Free Music Society and even the early pre-dance work of Cabaret Voltaire shouldn’t hesitate to check this out. Back in the punk-era Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith detailed the three Rs: “Repetition, Repetition, Repetition”. EARTH GRID is an exemplary documentation of that indefatigable sage’s teachings. So turn it on, zero in and bliss out.

I consider PINK FLAG by Wire to be one of the greatest punk rock albums ever recorded. Top five, easily. I also consider it to be one of the best debut records to ever take up time on my turntable, an essentially flawless document of a fledgling new sound by a confident and defiantly intelligent band that continues to assert its influence on contemporary rock music to this day. In my estimation, Wire’s first three full length records shape up as the finest expression of the possibilities of the whole punk impulse (at least from the first wave), displaying a constant evolution of a well fleshed out ideal that spotlighted growth, ingenuity and risk, a sensibility which sat in sharp contrast to the atmosphere of stasis and retrograde sensibilities that afflicted their chosen playground almost immediately. What’s doubly impressive is they did it on albums in a genre that’s best vessel of expression was the single. Since PINK FLAG was the first it’s also the one that adheres most closely to the standard punk template, though the clarity of the band’s individuality instantly shines through. The very fact that it was released on the largely excellent Harvest label, the home of the exploits of early Pink Floyd and other Brit hippie oddballs helped set Wire apart from the pack before the needle even dropped. But once that diamond tip hit the spiral groove it was abundantly clear just how much the band stood out from and bettered their peers, a group that was still mostly maiming Chuck Berry riffs and channeling and speeding up The Stooges. Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Robert Gotobed (drums), Graham Lewis (bass) and Colin Newman (vocals) were having none of that. Instead, they crafted tunes that were brittle and precise in their angularity, confected short minimal passages of melodic brilliance, or knocked off finely calibrated blasts of shout-along rock invention. It was obvious Wire preferred nuance to bluntness and as thinking guys they understood punk music as a challenge to be tackled rather than a simple formula to be mastered and spat out to the blindly accepting. “Reuters”, PINK FLAG’s first track, is in my estimation strikingly unusual purely in terms of its placement in the song order and all the better for it; instead of a rush of aural adrenalin suitable for the kicking over of trash cans, the tune is a pulsing mid-tempo of rhythmic tension and hazy guitar that leads to an anthemic, macabre lyrical flourish and a tense wind-down. Sort of proto-post-punk, but that was Wire in a nutshell. A more reasonable idea might’ve been to put “Reuters” at the end of side one, but thankfully less logical heads prevailed. From there “Field Day for the Sundays”' skeletal stop-start is over in twenty-eight seconds flat. These days, short songs aren’t unusual, but in 1977 this kind of brevity was almost an entirely unexplored territory. PINK FLAG has five songs that clock in at less than a minute and nine more that are under two. Certainly this left a mountain of minds befuddled. But more importantly it was a real eye opener for others, most prominently the Minutemen. The lesson is simple; when the song’s over, IT’S OVER. So many very good punk songs (hell, songs in general) miss the mark of greatness because the creators couldn’t unwrap their minds from some specious three-and-a-half minute malarkey. And in no way was Wire (and by extension Minutemen) bound to this idea. “Strange” (which many people know from R.E.M.’s cover) is almost four minutes in length and the title track isn’t far behind. But if the band is a study in extremes it’s not from desire but of necessity. “Three Girl Rhumba” needs a rickety structure just as the track right behind it “Ex Lion Tamer” requires a more muscular elasticity. This means that PINK FLAG suffers no lack of focus or loss of power. When the shrewd pop savvy of “Fragile” and “Mannequin” is thrown into the mix the record becomes a simple embarrassment of riches that’s best not used as a qualitative yardstick because only the smallest fraction of attempts will ever come close to measuring up. Naturally, Wire have been a huge influence on an assload of bands, with a whole bunch of worthies releasing strong covers in fine tribute, Big Black, fIREHOSE, Scrawl and New Bomb Turks among them. That’s to be expected with any great sounding band. But Wire was much more than that. They embodied possibilities. The true testament to their greatness is a triangle of influence with one side being the aforementioned Minutemen and the others belonging to the wily California art-punk of Urinals and scorching DC hardcore of Minor Threat. And I’m still quite impressed and a bit tickled by how the latter transformed PINK FLAG’s closer “1 2 X U” into such a primal and breakneck statement, one of the defining sounds of a genre (“flex yr head!!!”), particularly because Wire in their original incarnation aren’t what I consider a “heavy” band. Distorted and tough yes, but heavy no; actually I think they’re as light as a well baked cake, just with a handful of nuts, bolts, screws and springs tossed into the batter. The marked difference between Wire and Minor Threat (or for that matter Urinals or those Pedro dudes) is the biggest lesson they both offer, an essential and sometimes forgotten part of the D.I.Y. ethos. Yes, do it yrself, but give it vitality and most importantly, make it yr own. PINK FLAG is a 21-track primer in how to get the job done.

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