Friday, February 10, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 2/10/12 - Tortoise and Sunn O))) Meets Nurse with Wound

As they inch ever closer to twenty years of existence it can be increasingly easy to forget just how unique Tortoise sounded upon first emerging onto the scene, and additionally that they weren’t instantly beloved at the time by the indie community at large. You see, the general state-of-affairs during this period had gotten so saturated in predictable band configurations featuring bucket loads of guitar distortion and vocalists emitting syllables pertaining to lyrical sentiments that the arrival of an all instrumental collective influenced by dub, progressive rock, jazz (the dreaded fusion in particular), electronic and experimental musics could easily inspire pocketfuls of naysayers to accompany the tide of appreciative listeners receptive to Tortoise’s fresh set of sonic possibilities. Upon the release of the band’s self-titled debut in 1994 the term post-rock had yet to gain any currency, and indeed Tortoise are one of the defining groups from within that thorny and debatable non-genre. I can distinctly recall a smattering of folks both in print and in person grumbling throughout the mid-‘90s that this band’s music was indulgent and non-punk in nature. Horrors!!! To tackle the second putdown first; yes, in the strict formal sense Tortoise has nothing to do with punk, but by ’94 this reality frankly lacked any of the minimal pertinence it ever held (please understand that deriding something as being insufficiently punkly has been a go-to gambit for sour sticks in the sediment since Stiv Bators first picked his nose in public). But if not punk in structural terms Tortoise was a helluva lot more invested in the spirit of the style than a bunch of tired, crusty bums maiming the life out of anything that was once great in the Buzzcocks’ bag of tricks. And regarding the subject of self-indulgence, well ditto; conservative crabs have been sourcing that term to decry attempts to advance beyond the established mainstream norms for the better part of the last century. But I’m not making any profound statements, for Tortoise rather quickly proved their detractors to be carping up the wrong tree. The evidence can be found in the grooves of their first two brilliant LPs, ‘96’s MILLIONS NOW LIVING WILL NEVER DIE and ’98’s TNT, a pair of discs that have subsequently come to define their creative high-watermark. That’s subsequently and also erroneously the case, since 2001’s STANDARDS, freshly reissued on vinyl by the band’s longtime label home Thrill Jockey, often gets belittled as somehow lesser than the obvious one-two combination wallop of MILLIONS/TNT. I suspect the reason for this boils down to familiarity. Once a big gust of unexpected newness, by the release of STANDARDS Tortoise had inspired a set of like-minded practitioners and instigated a handful of splinter projects (including Sea and Cake, Brokeback, and Isotope 217) while the ballyhoo of post-rock had crested and found itself the subject of critical conjecture as to what exactly the term entailed (the main complaint I’ve encountered is that unlike say post-bop or post-punk, the term post-rock is simply too broad and vague a term to be useful as a descriptor, an argument I understand but am ultimately indifferent about). Suffice to say that in contrast to just a few years previous, when STANDARDS first landed securely in the racks Tortoise was being held to a rather more stringent set of, uh, standards (groan). And this is quite alright, since it’s exactly the kind of healthy give and take that can occur between fans/critics and bands, producing a dialogue hopefully conducive to inspiring an even higher level of output. And while certainly underrated in their discography, the bands fourth LP isn’t exactly criminally misunderstood. Over the years their sound has been simultaneously open to variation and surprisingly consistent from track to track and record to record, so curious neophytes wouldn’t be erring a bit if they chose STANDARDS as their introduction into the realm’s of Tortoise’s vast sound-world. Opener “Seneca” surely doesn’t skimp on the by now trademark ability of the unit to travel a diverse landscape of sonic ideas, moving from Mahavishnu Orchestra-like guitar expansion to heady space-age techno-funk without hesitation and then blending seamlessly into “Eros” with its glitchy electronic veneer gradually turning icily and angularly rhythmic. From there the proceedings take a darkly retro-futuristic sci-fi turn with the first half of the NAKED LUNCH referencing “Benway” reminding me slightly of something Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark might’ve done in their early, less commercial beginnings before the tune segues into a kinda-sorta hybrid of smooth Krautrock motorik and the sound of a mythical fusion band from around ’72 co-lead by pianist/survivor Herbie Hancock (he of SEXTANT, a key antecedent for Tortoise’s sensibility) and estimable vibist Bobby Hutcherson. So this is the perfect time to mention one of my favorite elements in Tortoise’s arsenal, specifically the vibraphone. And speaking of pleasing vibes of an entirely different sort, “Firefly” easily slips into a tense mood of neo-noir soundtrackery, displaying a powerful grasp on the sensibility of film composer Ennio Morricone without falling prey to the more obvious stylistic swipes that the less subtle disciples of the Italian master often dish out; instead they wisely choose to carry forward his methods into a  contemporary rock (or post-rock, if you will) framework. “Firefly” feels readymade to accompany some ominous character breaking into a vintage Lincoln Continental in an alley behind a dilapidated warehouse. What’s that car doing there and what’s he looking for? Something bad is going to happen, I just know it. "Firefly" makes me yearn to hear what these guys would do in collaboration with one of our more musically sensitive (and visually astute) current filmmakers. For example I think they’d be a great potential fit with Michael Mann. “Six Pack”, not a Black Flag cover (or [to my knowledge at least] a Kenny Rogers tribute) ends side one with a concise bit of their perpetually on-the-spot up-tempo fusioneering. And the five tracks on side two are up to the same level of quality, with “Eden 2”’s dirty funk rhythming, “Blackjack”’s impressively subtle dynamic and tonal shifts and “Speakeasy”’s solid and jazzy melodic progression standing out. But it’s “Monica” that ultimately steals the show, opening with a flurry of slow-jam talk-box guitar that could easily get any two amorously inclined individuals to commence with some of the ol’ lovey-dovey on a (hopefully) leather-upholstered sofa. Insert tiger sound here. True, “Monica” doesn’t luxuriate in this mode for all that long, but it surely lingers around the motif for a suitable enough length of time for you to get down to business, Casanova. So go to it, and don’t worry, for STANDARDS will be waiting on the turntable when you’re through. Go on and play side two again, frisky. I mean as R. so astutely sung, I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind.

Sunn O))), Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s nearly fifteen year excursion into the outer reaches of doom/drone metal has produced an impressive heap of quality work, indeed holding some the defining examples of the metal genre as admirable platform for pure sonic experimentation rather than as the well trodden zone for the pot-fueled banging of heads and pumping of horned fists. I mean, pump away if you like, for the urge isn’t a bit inappropriate as regards the sound of Sunn O))), but it should be quickly obvious to any alert listener discovering their work that its whole raison d’être  goes much deeper than simply producing a physical reaction expressed as ritual. Not that Sunn O))) disdain ritual; to the contrary, they partake in ceremonial activities such as the wearing of Grimm Robes and the use of fog to enhance the atmosphere of their powerful live performances. It’s just that ritual is less an expression of bodily motion (e.g. the headbang, the pogo, the pit, the pony or whatever dance/reaction you care to name) and far more spiritual or symbolic for this particular band. And Sunn O))) can be correctly considered a band, though they are more aptly described as that core duo of O’Malley and Anderson engaging in a multi-tiered collaboration with a shifting cast of musicians that’s included everyone from well established rock cats like Julian Cope, Joe Preston and Justin Broadrick to avant-exp-noise heavies such as Merzbow, Oren Ambarchi and John Weise. This interest in placing the aesthetic of Sunn O))) directly in the path of players possessing considerable talent was already apparent by the group’s second album, 2000’s superb excursion into glacial cascades of distorto-feedback textures ØØ VOID. On that record O’Malley and Anderson were joined by Scott Reader (ex-Kyuss, ex-Obsessed) on bass, Peter Stahl (of harDCore legends Scream and the excellently named doom metallers Goatsnake) on vocals and Petra Haden (ex-That Dog, ex-Decemberists and too many other projects to list) on violin and vocals. Not that you’d recognize them from the music. ØØ VOID’s four formidable tracks, the sum totaling nearly an hour in running time, collectively felt like being dunked into a gigantic cauldron of metallic riffs made liquid with the consistency of molasses, the flavor of pure Tabasco and the aroma of engine exhaust, i.e. a truly great immersion. I just returned to the record after an absence of a few years and through a succession of back to back listens am pleased to find it simultaneously holding both an immediate familiarity and a level of abstraction that reveals new elements with each encounter. And while Sunn O))) could’ve been rightfully satisfied with ØØ VOID's level of quality and let it rest in the hierarchy of their discography as an impressive finished work, well they weren’t. For in 2008 the record was released by the Japanese label Daymare on CD with a bonus disc of ØØ VOID “remixes” courtesy of Nurse with Wound titled THE IRON SOUL OF NOTHING, a fascinating document that’s just been given an expanded and superior standalone 2LP vinyl issue from the imprint Ideologic Organ. For those not in the know, Nurse with Wound is essentially the byproduct of classic Brit obscurantist Steven Stapleton and whoever he chooses to work with, and since the dawn of the ‘80s the name has been synonymous with an intriguing and prolific outsider aura that’s been categorized as everything from drone to noise to industrial (in the early, pre-dance sense of the term). NWW featured a dark, experimental, extremely personal approach to music making that found the “band” rubbing shoulders with such disparate entities as Current 93, Coil, Organum, Whitehouse, Jim O’Rourke, Stereolab and Krautrock legends Faust. Suffice it to say that anybody wanting to bask in the full breadth of this globe’s legitimately underground progressions over the last thirty years needs to spend some real time getting acquainted with Nurse with Wound. Hell, just start with the debut, the still wondrously confounding CHANCE MEETING ON A DISSECTING TABLE OF A SEWING MACHINE AND AN UMBRELLA from ’79 (the record that included the now rightfully legendary insert dubbed the “NWW-list”, a collection of obscure influences upon Stapleton’s singular ethos that had legions of listeners salivating over its allusiveness for years until the internet finally allowed folks to actually hear much of what the fuss was about) and get gobsmacked but good. THE IRON SOUL OF NOTHING finds Stapleton reworking ØØ VOID so drastically that it becomes an entirely new sonic object that remains in consort with Sunn O)))’s considerable aims.  "Dysnystaxis (...A Chance Meeting with Somnus)" builds into a captivatingly eerie piece of drone reminiscent of certain foreboding pathways of Modern Classical or more tangibly the dark ambient genre as offered by names like Lustmord. This direction is further explored on both parts of "Ra at Dawn (Rapture, At Last, Numbered by Her Light)" (comprising sides two and four of the set), but it’s "Ash on the Trees (The Sudden Ebb of a Diatribe)" that stands apart; where the other three sides present soundscapes of creeping instrumental tension, “Ash…” is at least somewhat about the familiarity and release of language, bringing Stahl’s vocals, previously buried under the rumble and roar of ØØ VOID, to the forefront and then combining them with a collage of sounds that includes a startling barrage of shattered glass. THE IRON SOUL OF NOTHING ultimately moves so far beyond the template of remixing that it’s far more appropriate to describe it as a reimagining or even better as a reinterpretation, so it makes perfect sense that the finished work has been given not only its own title but has finally been distinguished with its own release. To consider it a curious digression in the work of Sunn O))) or Nurse with Wound is a mistake, for it’s loaded with the uncompromising spirit of both parties.