Back in the day, I saw a group called Disc play live. Their members — including a young unknown going by the handle Kid606 — took a pocket knife to their CD pile and incorporated their scratched-up play into a mix of power electronics. Using methods that are almost passé by today’s standards, Disc floored me with blasts of The Spice Girls skipping at random over low frequency white noise and digital fuckery. It was dumb, goofy fun, surrounded by loose, highbrow concepts and gifted with enchanting results — pop culture, damaged and regurgitated into something new, exciting and, dare I say it, entertaining.
Max Haiven and Jon Vaughn, two student activist/artists, attempt to do something in the same ballpark — as humorless as it is — with Front, their first documented full-fledged release. Within the album’s 73 minutes and 33 nameless tracks, the duo explores the points at which attitudes intersect with aesthetic choices. Their distrust of the latter begs the question, “What is art? What is pop music?”; they seem to believe that there’s not as much separation as you might think. To demonstrate, Haiven and Vaughn throw all sorts of folky instrumentation and skipping/looping pop recordings into a stark experimental stew of Difficult listening. And that’s Difficult with a capital “D”. Granulated drones and austere digital atmospherics provide a foundation for the occasional wisps of familiarity — an acoustic guitar, a snippet extracted untidily from the radio, a stray vocal — that snap us back into the real world. It’s a hard road for an ear to travel, and it shows that, however profound Haiven and Vaughn’s mission, it’s much easier to get a handle on their concept than on the music itself.
The duo’s actual approach is unknown, but a record like Front, without any discernible structure, would almost have to have some extemporaneous elements dropped in on the fly. In fact, the two are seasoned in the art of electroacoustic improv, having performed live together and with others at various musical events in Canada. Their sounds unfold organically, sometimes beautifully; the interruptions and incoherence of this long piece are its structure. There is a chunk in the middle of the album that is nothing more than an oscillating organ note, held down over the course of four tracks. Why these tracks were broken into lengths of 1’14”, 2’11”, 0’17” and 4’02” is unimportant. The arbitrary methods adopted by Haiven and Vaughn are about rejecting convention, and, while that’s hardly a costly stance in the context of experimental music, Front gets its point across in joyless fashion. Thing is, it’s an impossible thing to pull off, entirely — their glitchy loopage is not exactly a novelty — but the boys know this. Their talents as sound sculptors speak for themselves (check out track 24, an impressive percussive montage) and, in the end, the pair make an interesting racket that succeeds on its own merits, concepts aside. That said, gimme The Spice Girls enhanced by a pocket knife any day.