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william basinski: the disintegration loops

Entropy is the physical process by which things fall apart. Order merges into chaos. Things decay and die. For those of you unlucky enough to have suffered through a full course in thermodynamics (by far my least favorite part of physics) you find out that it has a firm mathematical foundation in the physical workings of the universe as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I firmly prefer Isaac Asimov’s treatment of it in his famous short story “The Last Question”. I’ve read this story aloud in my physics, math and astronomy courses as a special treat when the semester is coming to an end, with reactions ranging from awe to utter confusion.

It’s such a simple concept though, that it’s almost second nature to us, from the expected state of affairs in one’s house if you have small children, to the fact that food rots if you leave it out and “let nature take its course”. Perhaps as discussed in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we must in some sense be born knowing of our own mortality.

Whatever the philosophy of it may be, it is inevitable that things break, run down, become more randomized. William Basinski has managed to capture this concept of entropy in a unique and utterly effective way. A well-known figure in the field of ambient electronic music, Basinski’s compositions are definitely down-tempo, oozing sublimely usually without a hint of percussion over sedate but stark landscapes.

As the story goes, Basinski was in the process of digitizing some 20-year old tape loops when he noticed that the brittle magnetic coating was starting to flake off. These 5-10 second loops were disintegrating, and with them the music encoded on them started to die. Little by little, bit by bit, the sound would change subtly in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way. A way that could only come from the realm of analog sound reproduction. Basinski decided to capture this process of nature taking its course on the four album set The Disintegration Loops.

Now, a five hour selection of repetitive tape loops breaking down might not seem like something that would hold anybody’s interest for very long. However there is something compelling about it all. The loops themselves have a distantly resonant and solemn quality to them, as if coming from a string orchestra echoed to infinity. Haunting and somber tones ache with a sad beauty, and to hear them fail bit by bit is more than a little heartbreaking. Even if it is easy to restore the loop to its original glory by going back to the beginning of the track, the sense of loss is palpable and one feels powerless to stop the inevitable process, the sinister decay.

Each track falls apart in a different way. Some take much longer than others, stretching their death knells across the better part of an hour. For those with shorter attention spans who want to hear noteworthy changes after only a few iterations, the track “d|p 4″ from Volume III is your best bet. It decays in rapid fashion after about the half way mark 10 minutes in. The last few loops are merely fragments and pops and clicks.

To call it a gimmick seems grossly unfair. This is the universe, nature, doing what it does best: follow the rules built into the very fabric of itself. Is it the music dying, art destroying itself? Perhaps. But Basinski has merely shown us an accelerated version of the fated outcome of everything from magnetic tapes to buildings to people. The unique, almost loving treatment of it, of entropy, is what makes The Disintegration Loops mesmerizing, unforgettable, irresistible.


quest for the perfect popsong

Abbey_LegoI have only come across two perfect popsongs in my long career of enjoying music. There are many that almost make the grade, but only two so far that deserve to be called perfect.

What makes a popsong perfect? First of all it has to be short. Too short. Too DAMN short! When it ends, your heart and belly ache for it to keep going. Is that all there is? How dare they?! It can’t just end like that! It also has to be memorable and catchy, so that you are humming it for hours afterward. Addictive would be another good word to describe it. Immediate would be another. It’s like candy when you were 7 years old. You could describe it as deceptively simple but not simplistic.

What my two perfect two popsongs?

1. “Pack Yr Romantic Mind” by Stereolab. From the highly regarded album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (one of the best titles of all time), the song comes sauntering in as relief from the first two noise-laden tracks, like some European 1960’s easy listening lounge music with French-accented smooth female vocals.  It’s booby-trapped though. Oh, is it ever! I’ll let you discover that.

2. “Outdoor Miner” by Wire. From the album Chairs Missing. There is a reason why something like a hundred different bands have covered this song. Colin Newman and company put their collective genius together just right and got away ever so briefly from the more inaccessible “post-punk” they’re famous for and crafted this sparkling gem. The album version is a short 2 minute number, while the hard-to-find EP version doubles that for a more satisfying experience. “No blind spots in the leopard’s eyes can only help to jeopardize the lives of lambs the shepherd cries.” How can you go wrong with lyrics like that? It only gets better.

Sure, I might be willing to add “Benway” by Tortoise, “Kite” by Kate Bush, some OMD track, something from the Stars on ESP album by His Name Is Alive, a Beatles track or a Beach Boys track at some point. But not yet. These two songs remain in a class by themselves.


Splashdown – Stars and Garters (2006)

Splashdown-StarsMusical neighbors, to a certain extent, of Boo Trundle and Laika, but encompassing a more user-friendly presentation, Splashdown has grabbed hold of something here, and you can too. It’s part groovy dance-trance that goes for the jugular, complete with synthesized sitars

(“Thunder,” which could have been penned by the likes of Laika), part understated Hooverphonics (“Presumed Lost”), part snarling evil-woman, Throwing Muse-ish burn (“Beguiled”) and even part historical, I’m-too-clever-for-my-own-good Jane Siberry (“So Ha,” a quirky gem). Owner of that voice, Melissa Kaplan, with little or no effects on her vocals easily flips back and forth between sounding lovely and menacing, as cute and disturbing as a pretty little girl burning ants with a magnifying glass.

When Splashdown aren’t rocking out, or being whimsical, the loose funkys are the norm, and they’ll make you move as well as anyone. But it’s with the more unusual, complex tunes that they do the most for me. The flowing, mysterious timbre of “Deserter,” as well as the equally unusual “So Ha” are eagerly relished, the former showcasing just how remarkable a vocalist Ms. Kaplan is.

 Somewhat drum-n-bass in the guise of Lida Husik, “Running With Scissors” closes an unusual and very often compelling album. By the time it finishes, you may very well do a double-take, or you might just be so enchanted that minutes pass before you realize the music’s stopped.

Splashdown’s Stars and Garters receives a score of 3.5 out of 5 stars


Rossburger Report – 2 (1997)

Rossburger_2I suspect only Germans could come up with something exactly like this, but actually they’re not the only band to develop a similar concept, that of a guitar symphony, a whole ton of guitars (up to 15 in this case) playing in droning unison. After all Glenn Branca has been doing this for a while, Tone – The Guitar Ensemble tries some of the same tricks, and even Scenic employs similar sounds and tones, but Rossburger Report has quite a grand and unique thing going here.

4AD trivia fanatics will know that this band features Manuela Rickers from Xmal Deutschland (on drums) and that Ivo almost signed them based on a live performance which apparently doesn’t translate too well to the recorded medium. To me, however, it sounds marvelous! Sinister energy, almost punkish attitudes, a balance between rough and finely tuned and composed textures, and inescapable drones that buzz around your head and hum through your body… “Blue Moon” opens with a stunning roar of stringed beasts then comes charging at you at ever increasing speed. Is your heart pounding yet? Then you’re ready for the stand-out “Der Greuel” (chosen for the Slow Death In The Metronome Factory compilation).

What at first listen sounds extraordinarily brash and monotonous is found to contain subtlety and complexity. A symphonic effect is often achieved, most notably on “Spartacus 2000,” one of their lighter moments. They can also be remarkably delicate as witnessed in “Sonate no.1” which I daresay contains some of the wistfulness of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The weight that all of these songs seem to possess is immense, as if an army of guitars has been sent out to ravage the countryside. I’ll gladly let my ears stand in their path of sonic construction.

Rossburger Report’s 2 receives 5 out of 5 stars


Lycia – The Burning Circle And Then Dust (2006)

Lycia-BurningCircleWhat, another Lycia album? Didn’t I say they were kinda formulaic? It’s true they’re usually working with a restricted palette, however this is the Lycia album you should get if you want to check them out. Then if you like what you hear, get Estrella. Both recordings are essential. Everything clicked on this album.

Lycia found out they could make beautiful music. It’s still gorgeously dark and haunting, and Mike VanPortfleet still half-whispers his vocals as if from the grave, but wow, there is actually some melody here! The general impression from all the heavily treated guitar and synth is of the glory days of shoegaze, and the band Slowdive in particular. The sound is so full, electric and alive that you want to keep reaching for the volume knob because more = better, without limit. You simply cannot turn up the volume too loud on this album, and it has the distinction of being the loudest thing I have ever played on my stereo. It’s a good thing the neighbors were away!

More deep, deep burbling bass and drum machine, more densely layered washes of guitar and keyboards yearning for the stars. As opposed to other Lycia offerings, the warmth here is a definite and welcoming presence, Even in the macabre “In the Fire and Flames” there is familiar humanity. They come very close to creating a pop song with “Pray” which is further notable as the first time the beatbox has been turned up past 20 bpm (not much of an exaggeration). The other standout track, “Where Has All The Time Gone” presents a magnificent and melancholy paean of dark romanticism. The heights reached by the humming symphony of lush sustained reverberations are mesmerizing. Gorgeous!

The Burning Circle And Then Dust was originally released as a double album, but was then scaled back to include just the first disc, definitely the better half. You have probably not heard much like Lycia, so let their sonic masterpiece be your introduction.

The Burning Circle And Then Dust receives 5 out of 5 stars.


Lycia – Estrella (1998)

Lycia-EstrellaNow THIS is more like it! Where Cold was, umm, cold, Estrella is, well, it’s cold as well, but in a much more interesting way, more along the lines of The Burning Circle and Then Dust, and the two Tara tracks off Cold. It’s probably no coincidence then that Tara takes on most of the vocal duties here. Most of the songs attain a majestic, if a little disturbing and creepy, glory, marked by the usual Lycia imprints of haunting swirls and scorching guitar.

A satisfying fullness of sound and melody permeates every stark corner and half-forgotten wasteland, delivering the music of the stars. As if tapping into some ancient memory of archaic tribal rituals, “El Diablo” and the wordless “Tongues” raise the hairs on the back of your neck, in true Lisa Gerrard fashion as they weave exotic mosaics of utterly mesmerizing sound. You often have the sense of overload, as if staring into a bright light, but once overcoming the relative austerity of the surroundings you can clear away the fog and impending doom to marvel at the remarkable sights. “The Canal” creates another wordless, repetitive groove, a dramatic incantation summoning unknown powers from across the universe.

I once witnessed Trance To The Sun perform something like this, and it was both unsettling and rapturous. This album, and Lycia in general, demands volume to do them justice. And if the surroundings become a little too ominous, “Estrella” and “Silver Sliver” lighten the load by sounding uncharacteristically upbeat and beautiful in a much brighter and less demanding sense. Lycia made a smart move on this album. Tara’s voice is perfectly suited to the music, and the regained melodic content and more exotic flair now and then etch themselves firmly in your subconscious without becoming irritating. Estrella is a remarkable feat of balance.

Lycia’s Estrella gets 4 out of 5 stars.


Lycia – Cold (1997)

lycia-coldMaking a Lycia album was always a formulaic undertaking for Mark Vanportfleet and Tara Vanflower: slow down your drum machine to a crawl, wash dramatically dark layers of synth over everything, emblazon tortured guitar licks and low humming bass across the night, whisper phrases sepulchrally as if you’re trying to frighten the children and just make everything sound like Armageddon is just around the corner.

Something happened with their previous one The Burning Circle and then Dust (review coming soon). Whether it was a favorable alignment of the planets or a temporary exorcism of dark spirits we’ll probably never know. Lycia created an amazingly rich and darkly gorgeous double album full of vibrant, brilliant sounds using virtually the same formula outlined above. It was more than enough to earn them my highest rating. Here and now, however, the stars don’t shine as brightly, and the dark muddiness has crept back in. Rather than uplifting paeans that ache to be played as loud as you can stand, all but two of the nine tracks become mired down with atonality and lack of direction. The two that rise above all else are the ones sung by Tara: “Snowdrop” and “Polaris.” The latter shows they can still deliver chills of pure delight. It’s repetitive, trance-inducing nature pervades all, and when Tara begins singing actual words besides “laa” most of the way through it will feel like you’ve been transported elsewhere.

Their next album, Estrella (also reviewed here), moves into this area a little more firmly, I am happy to say. Always slightly disturbing, but also fascinating now and then, Lycia sound utterly unique. Use sparingly for greater reward.

Lycia’s Cold gets 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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