George Zahora, Splendid E-Zine, June 16, 2005
George Zahora, Splendid E-Zine, June 14, 2005… albums like 1. Grrr are nuclear weapons for your record collection…
George Zahora, Splendid E-Zine, December 3, 2003… an unusual, intermittently powerful album, capable of leaving you disturbed…
George Zahora, Splendid E-Zine, July 25, 2002… they rip sounds apart at an almost genetic level, scrunching them and tearing them and twisting them and hacking at them with the ravenous relish of sonic serial killers.
The story so far: back in 2003, Tétreault and Yoshihide, who manipulate sound using extensively modified/misused turntables, embarked on a 15-date tour. Many of their improvised performances were recorded for posterity, and the best bits were culled for a series of three “themed” live albums. The first volume, 1. Grrr, featured the segments most likely to cause torrents of blood to gush from listeners’ ears. 2. Tok focuses on the rhythmic elements of the duo’s performances; they even go so far as to describe it as “beat-driven”.
Don’t be fooled by that phrase! Yes, 2. Tok’s material is more rhythm - and percussion - attuned than anything on 1. Grrr (most of which sounds like what a mosquito sitting on your index finger hears when you run your fingernails down a blackboard), but calling it beat-driven is like describing being chased by a herd of angry bulls as “a spot of exercise”. Beat-harried, more like.
2. Tok’s rhythms come without design or deliberate meter, which isn’t surprising - these are improvised performances, after all, and “rhythm” in this case refers to the sonic fluctuations created by applying a turntable stylus to a cymbal, or a piece of sheet metal, or another turntable stylus (no notes are provided regarding the specifics of the duo’s performance; we’re just guessing based on liner-note photos and recognizable sound-nuggets). Despite the lack of conventional musical form, 2. Tok’s stylistic remit allows for a far more varied dynamic range than 1. Grrr’s balls-out loudness. As a result, we’re treated to drone and flutter-based pieces such as Nijmegen no 4a / Extrapool 25.04.03, which sounds like someone attempting to tune a very loud short-wave radio while a lawn-mower runs nearby. The source materials are a lot more recognizable when the volume is lowered: we can actually identify needle-drops in Orléans no 1 / Astrolabe 27.04.03, among others, and Genève no 4 / Cave 12 30.04.03 includes identifiable turntable scratching.
If you’re not a noise aficionado or a sonic endurance buff, 2. Tok makes a far more accessible point of entry into Tétreault and Yoshihide’s oeuvre. That’s purely relative, of course - don’t plan on putting either disc on your iPod unless you’re a professional interrogator.
Before we move forward, it’s important that you know the story behind 1. Grrr and the two discs that follow it (2. Tok and 3. Ahhh, respectively). Tétreault and Yoshihide are turntablists, albeit turntablists of a different stripe: above and beyond scratching, cutting and so forth, they favor modified turntables and heavily processed sounds, and are prone to applying their stylii to items other than vinyl records (1. Grrr’s liner photo shows Yoshihide attempting to “play” a small cymbal). In early 2003, the pair played a fifteen date tour, improvising a fresh set of turntable-derived aural extremity every night. Several of these sets were recorded, and their highlights were used to create three different live albums, each one based around a specific sonic theme. 1. Grrr, as its title implies, collects the loudest and most abrasive bits.
Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. If you’ve ever been put off by an album that was made with recognizable musical instruments, you have little or no hope of getting through 1. Grrr, a series of abrasive drones, grinding sounds, piercing squeals and other sounds from the angry end of the sonic palette. Even if you regularly listen to so-called “noise” records, and can detect the art in 1. Grrr’s assault - the textures, the nuances of physical manipulation, the fleeting moments of beauty - seventy minutes of this material is a punishing slog. It’s possible to play it as pure background music, but eventually some portion of it will get to you. In our office, the odds-on favorite is Grenoble no 1 / Le 102, 29.04.03, which adds a piercing, migraine-inducing squeal to the various low-register rumbles.
The thing is, albums like 1. Grrr are nuclear weapons for your record collection - it’s important to play them once, so that the world around you knows just how far you’re prepared to go. After that, you need merely threaten to play it again and watch how quickly people cooperate with you. Eventually, friends or your common sense will encourage you to get rid of 1. Grrr, but don’t; you’ll sleep better at night knowing it’s there.
Admit it: you’ve thought about war more in the last twelve months than you ever have before. Most of us have. We’ve discussed it, sometimes heatedly, with friends and co-workers, read and responded to polls and surveys, and perhaps even attended a rally or two. But how many of us have undertaken an existential examination of modern-day war?
Italian duo Metaxu (Filippo Paolini and Maurizio Martusciello) have engaged in just such an exploration. They present their thoughts in Rumors of War’s twelve pieces, each of which is named for a significant conflict or human-engineered disaster. The album begins with the event that set the ball rolling for World War I — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914 — and takes us through (what else?) September 11th, 2001. Metaxu have even included the fateful dates in their track titles, just in case you want to grab an encyclopedia.
These aren’t songs in a conventional sense (thank God — can you imagine the lyrics?). At best they’re abstract, conceptual collages punctuated by moments of musicality, some of which are startlingly lovely; at worst, they are aural reconstructions, full of metaphors writ large and loud. 06091945 Hiroshima is a cyclical accumulation of elements from the IDM palette — pops, clicks, clacks, bleeps and burbles — with voices half-audible in the background. Perhaps it’s meant to conjure the sterile stillness that follows a nuclear explosion. 07121941 Pearl Harbour ties more directly into reality, progressing from an ominously beautiful minor-key string sequence to an abrupt and ferocious attack, sounds and voices screaming from the sky like giant angry insects. 02051982 Falkland gradually layers an ominous, rumbling bass presence over a gentle pastoral atmosphere as if directing the full weight of the world’s attention at the titular islands.
11092001 New York will be most listeners’ best bet for making a contextual connection with Metaxu’s muse. If you think you’re no longer haunted by the World Trade Center disaster, listen to this one on headphones and get ready to be disturbed. The hint of Arabic music deep in the collage may not get to you, but later in the tune, when the central, keening drone rises in volume and intensity, becoming the scream of a tortured jet engine pushed beyond its design tolerance, you’ll be well and truly creeped. Fortunately, Metaxu don’t linger over the actual crash; the end, when it comes, is as sudden and sharp and devoid of detail as the real thing must have been.
Rumors of War is an unusual, intermittently powerful album, capable of leaving you disturbed (the aforementioned 11092001 New York) and frustrated (it’s mastered pretty low, so plan on being jolted out of your chair by a handful of quiet-to-loud transitions) in roughly equal measure. There’s no real dialogue between Metaxu and the listener, and no revelation beyond the fact that violence and war are sad, terrible things. Then again, that’s clearly a lesson we need to relearn every twenty years or so.
This is one of the most disorienting and abrasive CDs I’ve ever heard.
That’s not an award I hand out lightly. I’ve heard more than my share of noiseartsoundsculpture stuff in the last few years, and while many memories of those listening sessions have been reduced to panic-stricken hindbrain rantings (“Ears Hurt. Brain Hurt. What Noise? Why Loud? Why Hurt? Must Run Away!,” etc.), I’d like to believe that I’m as capable of finding beauty in eardrum-bursting cacophony as anyone can reasonably be expected to be. But I don’t recall having heard any other “improvised computer music” that’s as disjointed, disassociate and relentlessly disquieting as the work of Érick d’Orion and Aimé Dontigny.
Imagine listening to three different CDs on three different portable CD players at the same time. Now imagine doing it while falling down an endless flight of stairs, the tracks cutting in and out, overlapping and merging as you tumble arse-over-tip. That’s cut-up, liberum arbitrium’s opener, and one of the disc’s most benevolent moments.
Looking for something a little more invigorating? Try multivisión espacial, a thirteen-minute epic that sounds like nothing so much as a welding torch fight in a jack-in-the-box factory. Or if you’d like something a little more immediate, try the jolting sonic jabs, needle-sharp noise bursts, overmodulated white noise and excessive reverb of spencer; listen carefully, and you’ll discover a catchy little rock rhythm in the depths of the mix… unless you have an aneurysm first.
If prime shake is a gentle lullaby sung by a solid steel whale to its aluminum and polycarbon children, métal scrap might be an auditory close-up of the sound your car’s engine makes when you don’t change the oil for 30,000 miles. But if you really want to up the ante, skip straight to the closer, digisex. What does it sound like? Imagine a backhoe pushing a combination kitchen garbage disposal/56K modem into a giant glass cistern full of razor blades and styrofoam packing peanuts — oh, and you’re watching and listening to it over a 28K video stream. Makes you want to run right out and buy the disc, doesn’t it?
The mad thing is, it actually might. If you’ve ever taken a whack at creating improvised processed-noise pieces on your home computer, you know that making them interesting — even making them painful for an extended period of time — takes some serious thought and real creativity. It’s one thing to turn the distortion and the reverb all the way up and leave the room for half an hour; it’s another matter entirely to sit there, in the eye of the storm, fine-tuning the wind and the rain and the lightning. Once you’ve made it through liberum arbitrium a few times, assuming you accomplish such a feat, you’ll develop a legitimate appreciation for d’Orion and Dontigny’s work; they rip sounds apart at an almost genetic level, scrunching them and tearing them and twisting them and hacking at them and carving them into little potato-peeler-curlicues with the ravenous relish of sonic serial killers.
Realistically, though, there aren’t many people who’ll buy a disc like this, and even fewer who’ll listen to it on a regular basis. This is one of those albums that defines one of the polar “ends” of your record collection. It can’t be listened to casually; simply withstanding it eats up far more mental CPU cycles than the average active listening experience. You can’t ignore it, and you certainly can’t tune it out.
I figure there are three types of people who’ll buy it:
- Academic, wire-rimmed-spectacle-wearing intellectual types who grew up on death metal and have spent their later years seeking out increasingly extreme thrills, attempting to trump other members of their social circle in the difficult listening stakes;
- People seeking sonic armament. For instance, I’d love to play digisex at 5:00 a.m., at very high volume, for the cocksucker with the weapons-grade subwoofer who drives past my house with his car stereo blaring at 3:00 a.m., or for the workmen at the town home development down the street who fire up their earth-moving equipment at 6:30 to get a head start on the day;
- Random buyers attracted by the cover art and Latin title.
Regardless of which category suits you, rest assured that you’ve never heard computers make noises like these before (no, not even when you tried to play the OS X install CD). There’s something so resolutely non-musical about liberum arbitrium — despite the brief, unrecognizable song snippets (i.e. the one at the beginning of digisex) that bleed through its pink-noise shell — that its most intractable moments will be like siren songs to those musical explorers who are driven to the polar extremes of sound. You can’t sing along to it, you sure as hell can’t dance to it — hell, you can barely think to it — but you need to hear an album like liberum arbitrium at least once in your life, if only to define your boundaries.