RECENT LISTENING #23
New Harnessians, Soundgarden, Kali Malone, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Don Cherry & Terry Riley, Nate Young/Wolf Eyes
NEW HARNESSIANS ‘TNH 2’ EP (LOVE EARTH MUSIC); “Tabla pt 1” EP (LOVE EARTH MUSIC); “Version 3” (LOVE EARTH MUSIC) Please meet The New Harnessians, another one of the apparently hundreds of bands that seemingly only exist on the airwaves of the Watt from Pedro Show. (And Bandcamp too, of course.) I’d tell you more about them, but their Bandcamp page doesn’t have any names or credits and only says they’re from Massachusetts. Nothing more specific than that; I don’t even know if they’re a him, a her, a they either singular or plural, but I do like their music, noise/experimental soundscapery that isn’t ‘harsh’ or ‘classic’ noise at all, more like dancing smudged electronic shuddering dreamtone. I listened through their TNH 2 (pictured) and “Tabla pt 1” EPs and every track was a slightly different approach or microgenre of its own, and then got to the last track on the “Tabla pt 1” EP, “Blank Slate,” which has doom/dirge/distorto bass guitar and scary post-blackmetal whispered vocals, tropes which kind of unceremoniously plunked the whole New Harnessians experience back into genre near-specificity (“black metal influenced”), after a nice run of it successfully hovering just outside. Some of these tracks are on a CDR release from 2020 called Tabla Rasa, which is their only listing on Discogs. The Bandcamp pages say that TNH 2 is coming in 2022, and I’m guessing that title is an abbreviation for The New Harnessians 2, which probably means it’s their second album and Tabla Rasa is considered their first. TNH 1 if you will. But I’m just being a discography geek, don’t mind me.
SOUNDGARDEN Ultramega OK CS (SST) Still have an original SST cassette of this as released in 1988, which I bought for $3.75 from the used cassette section at Twisters Music & Gifts in Lincoln, Nebraska not long after. I was 18 or 19 years old and the album frankly blew my mind. Listened to it all the time, in my car and on dorm-room boom boxes. At the time I was still very much into all kinds of 1980s metal, and Ultramega OK did sound very metal (lots of Sab/Zep stoner-metal guitar riffs and screaming maximalist guitar solos… the album even opens with a moment I feel literally 1,000 bands subsequently copied, the ethereal intro that builds up to a stoner-metal dropped-D riff drop signaled by a grunge-grunted “yeah”… not to mention the post-Dio demonic screaming falsetto of “Beyond the Wheel”… just two of the more obvious of the metal signifiers running throughout). But the album also had so much artsy and spindly post-punk noise guitar, which seemed to all be submerged in a palpable weird reverb/feedback space. It also had a lyrical approach that was uncommonly complex, sensitive, and vulnerable. This is why Ultramega OK and Daydream Nation were the biggest 1980s rock genre-busters there were for me, in the same way I can imagine Black Sabbath, Are You Experienced and Trout Mask Replica were for the 1960s, and I’m just now noticing Ultramega and Daydream were released 13 days apart back in October 1988. Now to be clear, the genres being busted by this music in 1988 are punk, metal, and psych-rock (with varying degrees of etcetera mixed in there too), and by 1988 these moves were reaching apoetheosis, a time when non-metal could still sound a lot like metal while definitely not being metal. Black Flag may very well have started this whole thing (you can certainly claim it on My War, indeed well ahead of the curve in 1984, but really Black Flag were busting genre as soon as they first plugged in and wailed in like 1977), so of course Ultramega OK is on SST. (For parenthetical reference, some of the more mainstream genre-busters in the 1980s were Thriller, Purple Rain, King of Rock, Like a Virgin, Eliminator.) Anyhoo, got the cassette back out for the first time in at least 25 years. I had no choice after checking out Episode 201 of the You Don’t Know Mojack podcast, in which Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil talks extensively about the album in a really great interview, and I’m happy to report Ultramega OK now sounds even better than it did back then, when it was busting those genres for the very first time. Hell, I’ll do a track-by-track myself, the aforementioned (though not by title) opening track “Flower” and its monster dropped-D Sabbath/Zep riff drop, then Cornell (busting genres) on the verses with a weird sneering low-register goth-metal vocal while the bridge is total “Kashmir,” then “All Your Lies” which is more uptempo and has near-jazzy turnaround riffs and hooks aplenty, then strap yourself in and get ready for the monumental “665” > “Beyond the Wheel” > “667” trilogy, which is essentially the G.O.A.T. Chris Cornell composition “Beyond the Wheel” bookended by a “665” intro and “667” outro (which implies that “Beyond the Wheel” is also titled “666,” damn, now it’s even more scary), both of which sound like separate edits from the same long rehearsal jam, killer monster improv bass by Hiro Yamomoto over Matt Cameron grooves that finally lurches into post-Flipper/PiL riff-and-dirge, with Satanic Panic backwards-masked vocals snaking into the mix (technically Santanic Panic, or maybe St. Nick Panic, as Thayil explains in the interview). Hiro also absolutely slays on the next two, which close out the first side: “Mood for Trouble,” which is an actually beautiful heartfelt heavy flamenco (!) rock ballad where he shines Watt-style on the austere post-punk broken-ballad instrumental turnarounds that frame one of Cornell’s original beautiful plaintive melodies. That flamenco/surf tremolo picking carries over (genre-bustingly so) into the next track, Soundgarden’s tribute to hardcore, in which Hiro and Chris switch, Cornell playing bass and Yamomoto taking on unhinged lead vocalist duties, for one of the greatest two-minute songs of the entire grunge era, “Circle of Power.” Side B starts with “He Didn’t,” a convoluted guitar riff written by drummer Matt Cameron, and like host Brant (don’t know his last name) says on the aforementioned podcast episode, “to me, you can tell it was written by a drummer.” It’s still great. (I’m sure Brant thinks so too.) Next is a track that really can’t be ignored, their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” which apparently no one in the band has ever admitted to having wanted on the record. It is no doubt the cheesiest track on there, with gated drums, egregious bar-rock wah-wah by Cornell, Bud Lite horn riffs that are almost subliminal (does anyone else hear what I’m talking about?), and the quite natural unease that should be felt literally any time an American man who isn’t of African descent plays the blues (unless they’re really good and eventually win you over which does happen on rare occasions). That said, I love the main winding guitar riff, which I think someone in the band wrote, maybe Thayil, especially by about the 400th time it’s mercilessly repeated. And, would you believe I’d never noticed they were cutting in some of Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69” at the end, in homage to Sonic Youth cutting in some of The Stooges’ “Not Right” at the end of their “Society is a Hole”? Nope, not until hearing Kim Thayil talk about it in the interview, and suddenly there it is. Now there are three songs left (four tracks, but only the first three of them are truly songs), what I think of as a “violence trilogy,” all punky riff songs that are dark and gory, both sonically and thematically: “Nazi Driver,” “Head Injury,” and “Incessant Mace.” The aforementioned fourth and album-closing track is an art/silence/static piece called “One Minute of Silence,” which is really just distant between-song practice-space banter; still one of those many elements that open this fantastic album up from mere surface rock/metal/punk trappings and into the realm of art, space, noise and even pure being.
KALI MALONE Cast of Mind (HALLOW GROUND); KALI MALONE The Sacrificial Code (iDEAL) Gather ‘round children, ‘twas a fabled late-night listening sesh not so long ago, when I got algorithmed to and maybe even awoken by “Arched in Hysteria,” what I later learned to be the third track on Kali Malone’s 2018 album Cast of Mind. In my startled liminal state I wondered if it might even be Wolf Eyes, due to the composition’s inzane shuddering-bass drone pressure, but there was something else going on, a high-minimalist higher-end quasi-choral quasi-church vector floating throughout. That’s when I learned that Kali Malone was the young composer (b. 1994, raised in Colorado, now resident in Stockholm), and she was creating that bass drone with a Buchla 200 synthesizer, while what I thought of as “quasi-choral” action was coming from a small combo of alto saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, and trombone. In other words, ancient-to-the-future 21st Century Composition at its finest. But the compositions for ensemble of Cast of Mind were no preparation for Malone’s works on solo pipe organ, as heard to exquisite effect on The Sacrificial Code. I’ve listened to this album about 20 times in a row now, not a joke. It helps that it’s been cold, grey and rainy this entire late March/early Spring week in the upper Midwest; I can’t think of music more perfect for this thick atmosphere. But it sounds great on a light and sunny day too, because this is great music, and I seriously wonder if I will ever stop listening to this album over and over and over. No wonder that even the most recent 2LP repress from last year already goes for about $100 on Discogs, with none of those copies in the USA. Even the 3CD edition will run you $75 by the time you find a domestic copy for sale. This is as it should be, because this music is rare earth indeed: dark and minimal but also deeply melodic, completely still but always unfolding. One piece is called “Litanic Cloth Wrung,” and it indeed feels like Malone is wringing that litanic cloth over and over, releasing the same volume of emotion each time that same melodic movement is repeated, the jug of love that will not run out. Malone on her process: “When I go to the organ to freely improvise, I usually just create static drones. Because there’s no dynamic range with the organ, it’s difficult for me to embrace movement. I’m just entrenched in stasis, and I want to stay there forever. So to sort of combat my immediate desire for stasis, when I sit down to play the organ, I have very rule-based methods. I create canon structures that use number matrices in a sort of serial fashion to determine note durations, and then I usually record the whole canon voice by voice.” These numbers and matrices, when set against her already “entrenched” static “forever” void, delineate a great venue, if you will: a vast emotional sonic space where this album, this music, this life can exist.
SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN Headless (CARNIVAL FUZZ/MANHAND); SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN Pick a Day to Die (THREE LOBED) Would you believe it’s been maybe 15 years since I’ve listened to this band, having written them off (prematurely, after really only listening to one album a couple times in 2002, especially after the Wire cover, of course) as an overhyped No-Neck Jr.? Wow, now it’s 20 years later, and that all just seems even more ridiculous than it already was at the time. I mean, there really was quite a bit of (relative!) hype over Sunburned, and I’ve always had a hype problem (doesn’t everybody?), but these two brand new (2020 and 2021) records are just great. It’s a proven fact that when hype dies down, you can hear music better, and that probably goes for those making the music as much as it does for those listening, so everybody wins. One of our finer underground music scribes today is Max Milgram (even if he only publishes his critical opinions when hawking records on the Philadelphia Record Exchange instagram account), who not only called Pick a Day to Die “their best work thus far,” but also astutely pointed out that Sunburned has absorbed a Can Future Days burble into their sound. Aw hell, I should just quote his whole sweet line: “tight but light cyclical burbling space groove that has a waft of mellow Future Days smoke.” (Yes, burble was his word, not mine.) This FD burble is just as present on Headless, with tracks like “Experiments” and the superb “Agitation Cycle,” also notable examples of the burgeoning ‘acoustic drums jamming with highly rhythmic synth patterns’ submovement.
TERRY RILEY/DON CHERRY Marijuana Summit LP (NO LABEL BOOTLEG); TERRY RILEY/DON CHERRY/KARL BERGER Koln — February 23, 1975 (MODERN SILENCE) When I bought a bootleg LP of a jam session between the greats Terry Riley and Don Cherry, dubiously (but not inaccurately) entitled Marijuana Summit by the bootlegger, I have to admit I expected — or at least hoped — it would be a completely different session of music Riley and Cherry recorded together, the one in Koln on February 23 1975 in a trio with vibraphonist Karl Berger. Instead, according to its liner notes (that the bootlegger rather conspicuously designed on Microsoft Word or Google Sheets and are actually quite informative), the Marijuana Summit LP documents a session recorded in Copenhagen on September 9 1970, almost five years before Koln. The notes go on to quote Riley saying, “That was the earliest example of [Don Cherry and I] playing together. I thought it was a very unsuccessful session. We went into it maybe smoking too much dope. [Laughs] I don’t feel we connected very well. Don wasn’t very happy either.” I would agree that it’s nowhere near as successful as the Koln performance, though now listening a second and third time, and having adjusted my initial disappointment, I realize it’s still a pretty great thing. Riley’s organ playing is absolutely up to his usual impeccable standard; unfortunately, it’s just not as well-recorded as on other releases. It’s Cherry that sounds more like he ‘summited’ too much marijuana, if you get my drift, as he cryptically chooses not to play cornet or trumpet on Side A, settling instead for some rather freewheeling wood drum action. He’s not exactly latching on to Riley’s natural pulse at the beginning, but even a stoned master musician is still a master musician, and, as the track progresses, he does find some subtle pockets for his surprisingly busy wood drum style. And regardless, he’s not well-recorded either; unfortunately more prominently recorded are the local Danish musicians who play flute, tenor sax, and bass (Knud Bjornoe, Jesper Zeuthen, and Poul Ehlers respectively, for those keeping score). They’re no Don Cherry, but again, my expectations have changed on these repeat listens, and now I’m appreciating this, whatever it is, as its own different thing. It’s always good to hear Riley’s ever-spiraling arpeggios, in any setting, including with a new-music workshop-style reeds & windwoods pickup chamber section, which gives it all that vintage 20th Century Composition flavor. And creeping underneath you’ve got Ehlers’s bass line, clinging to Riley’s left hand ostinato like a goddamn barnacle, digging deeper as it goes. Side two is still a little disappointing, though; Don finally plays his horn, but now Riley is playing soprano sax instead of his classic organ spirals, which means this session did not seem to yield a single Cherry/Riley horn/organ combination, unlike that session in Koln a few years later, where they had clearly and blissfully learned from their mistakes in Copenhagen. Listening to Koln now, I remember how Terry takes a few minutes to really get that organ groove going, and how great it is that Don waits him out and then jumps in at the perfect moment, first with some tentative sunshine rays, then developing those into bobbing and feinting sprinkles of breath and melody that weave their own way throughout Terry’s beautiful intervallic (and highly grooving) latticework. Honestly, a masterpiece of 20th Century music. There’s a YouTube comment on this Koln performance by one Philippe Cirse, and I think the way he describes Riley’s music is downright beautiful (his use of the “Hindoos” spelling is a little odd, but accurate from a musicological perspective): “Here, not only are melodic contours known and appreciated by the Hindoos, but also an absolutely new harmonic material, which brings us prisms, clusters of chords, thick chimes, and garlands of garlands. What strikes first of all in this music is, on the one hand, the penetrating charm of harmonic aggregations and, on the other hand, the absolute clarity of intervals!” It’s true, one of the most distinctive and great things about Riley’s music is the clarity of intervals. He is a mind-bogglingly good keyboardist. I’m not sure there’s even been one other person who can play a keyboard like this. And I’m not sure anyone else has played a vibraphone quite like Karl Berger does on the side two opener “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” (a title worthy of a Samuel Delany short story), an utterly beautiful mesh/meld with Riley’s organ, Berger sounding directly inspired by those hypercycling “garlands of garlands,” but Riley lets him take the lead, passing the garlandic torch if you will, by employing a more subdued and drony background style.
WOLF EYES “Love is for Everyone” b/w “Power of Dream: Think Big” (LOWER FLOOR) I swear this was released as a digital single back in March 2020, I guess on Bandcamp, that I think was attributed to both Nate Young and Wolf Eyes at the same time (which is kinda full circle because Wolf Eyes started back in 1998 as a solo project by Nate Young). Now, the two songs are still on Bandcamp, but as two separate stand-alone tracks, and interestingly don’t appear on Discogs at all. Maybe I’m misremembering the whole thing, but I do now see on Bandcamp that both tracks have the same credit, “composed by Nate Young and performed by Wolf Eyes for Balenciaga Summer 2020 campaign” (“Love is for Everyone” was in fact “the intro track for the ‘news’.”) So I guess this is like their “Balenciaga EP” or something, with Nate getting a deserved solo writing credit, and kudos to them all for crashing the fashion world like Lil Peep did, and for still making crucial music twenty-two years into an epic career. (Can’t believe I first saw them live in October 2001, a long time ago by any human measure.) Side A “Love is for Everyone” has a surprisingly smooth piano as a central instrument, and is unfortunately only exactly one minute long, because I could probably listen to it for twenty. “Power of Dream: Think Big” is over five minutes and sounds more typical for Wolf Eyes, but still inching into new territory. Unlike on “Love is for Everyone,” Inzane Johnny is clearly involved here, with all the reed drift and damage floating in and out of the ether. It also has those huge broken-beat low-end thuds that have been a Wolf Eyes signature since literally the 20th Century, but I swear there’s more going on up top than ever, not just the aforementioned reeds, but strange new sounds, in constant processes of both developing and devolving. It’s honestly surprising how, particularly since their 2013 reboot with a new (now reduced/expanded/mutated) lineup, Wolf Eyes seems to always progress, even with what still seems like a very rudimentary language. (Major reveal as to a primary source of this language over on @wolf_eyes_official just this last week btw.)