Beaver & Krause “Ragnarök (Electronic Funk)” (Limelight, 1969)

Back in 1997, I spotted a tattered copy of Ragnarök in a New Orleans used-record shop. The sexuagenarian owner had carefully wrapped the entire cover with clear tape, as it was eroded and moldy with water damage. Intrigued, I asked the proprietor to play the record so I could determine if I wanted to drop the $34 he was asking for it. (At the time, that was a very large amount for me to spend on a used LP.) From the first seconds of the title track, I knew I had to have it, astronomical sum be damned. It sounded like the most sinister and strange dystopian-sci-fi-film theme this side of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain score. Years later, I found a clean copy, but I’ve always kept the original to remind myself of that magical moment in NOLA that turned me on to the peculiar genius of synthesizer maestros Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause.

Before they cut Ragnarök, Beaver & Krause had put together the synth-demonstration box set The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It’s good for a listen or two, and then you put it on your shelf to impress collectors. In 1967, Beaver wilded out on a Moog in the Monkees’ “Star Collector.” And Krause played a key role in helping George Harrison record his 1969 Moog-powered LP Electronic Sound; side two was essentially Krause giving Harrison a synth tutorial, which Krause had no idea would be released and with which he wasn’t pleased. Around the same time, Krause and Beaver cut Ragnarök, their masterpiece—and, maddeningly, their hardest release to obtain. On the back cover, Beatles producer George Martin rhapsodizes about B&K’s Moog prowess: “Among the earliest to realize the potential of the instrument, their knowledge and technique of its use are unsurpassed.” The late studio wizard was on point.

Dropping the needle on Ragnarök, following the spook-out of “Ragnarök,” you get 180º’d by the folky ballad on Moog and 12-string guitar that is “The Fisherman.” It features Krause’s earnest, not-unpleasant vocals that verge on sentimentality and lyrics that derive from an 8th-century poem by Chinese writer Li Po. “Circle X” is an incredibly ominous and anguished piece of imaginary horror-flick musick that could’ve fit in well on David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack. “Dr. Fox”—featuring kooky lyrics by Leonard Lipton, author of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”—is one of the zaniest electro-pop/pseudo-circus-music jams you (n)ever did hear. Heard while tripping on acid, “Dr. Fox” will reduce you to tears of hysterical laughter, especially the part where Krause sings, “Dr. Fox built the freaking brain box that freaks me out/Every time he plugs me in, I spin, I spin, I spin [chuckle], I spin” over bleeping-and-blorping synth spasms.

Similarly, you will not keep a straight face when hearing “Moogy Blues Funk,” an absurdly jaunty old-time ditty that’s gussied up with thickly distorted Moog belches. By contrast, “As I Hear It” boasts such a beautifully wistful melody that you just know it broke the hearts of Boards Of Canada when they (probably) heard it in the early ’90s. “Fountains Of The Dept. Of Water & Power” is a veritable wonderland of Moog-y ostinatos while “33rd Stanza Of A Hymn To Sancho Panza” conjures vertiginous space-synth menace. “Changes” and “Interplay”—which come from a film score called Breakthrough—are alternately stately and whimsical synthesizer studies, with a rare use of drums on the former.

This very odd LP has never been reissued on vinyl or CD. If there’s a good reason for this, music-industry sages, please inform us. Somebody—legitimately or not—needs to bring Ragnarök back into circulation. -Buckley Mayfield

The Residents “The Third Reich ‘N Roll” (Ralph, 1976)


This was my introduction to the Residents and let me tell you, its impact was immediate and powerful. Divided into two sidelong collages of viciously irreverent covers of popular rock songs of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—“Swastikas On Parade” and “Hitler Was A Vegetarian”—The Third Reich ‘N Roll exposed the machinations of radio fodder as banal and manipulative in the extreme. Yet, even if you’re a fan of the songs the Residents mock here, as I am, you may still find yourself reveling in the clever, ludicrously distorted otherness of these versions. What they do with America’s “A Horse With No Name” is haunting as hell, and more poignant than the original. On the other hand, the Resident’s eviscerate the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” with a tip of the top hat to Joe Cocker’s guttural gargle, to boot. Having a very proper-sounding woman operatically sing James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” in German is wrongheaded genius, and those famous horn stabs sound absolutely hilarious in this context. Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” though, is smeared beyond all recognition. Similarly, “Heroes And Villains” sounds nothing at all like the Beach Boys, but rather like a squelched-out warping of a Gershon Kingsley/Jean-Jacques Perrey Moog ditty.

The “Hitler Was A Vegetarian” side takes a while to hit its stride, but when it does, oof. The off-key, out-of-time nightmare of “Yummy Yummy Yummy” might ruin bubblegum pop for you forever. (Nah.) The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” comes off as a brilliant robotic march that foreshadows Cabaret Voltaire’s cover of the Seeds’ “No Escape.” The mangling of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin” is a bloody travesty that inspires deep belly laughs. Elsewhere, Them’s “Gloria” gets desexualized beyond belief while the absurd machismo of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” receives a merciless depantsing. By contrast, the stretch starting with Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and seguing quickly into the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” sounds fucking amazing, as the Residents work wonders out a cheap, out-of-tune synthesizer and shockingly emotive guitar solo, with requisite backing moans. When the “woo woo”s of the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” encroach on “Hey Jude”’s churchy vibes, the album’s relentless deflation unexpectedly turns into inflation. Perverse! Does anyone know Dick Clark’s opinion of this album?

Residents fans probably already know this, but Don Hardy’s documentary Theory Of Obscurity is screening soon in Seattle and elsewhere, and it’s highly recommended. -Buckley Mayfield

Einstürzende Neubauten – Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T (Some Bizzare, 1983)

220px-ZeichnungenDesPatientenOTAlbumCoverRight out the grinding gate, Neubauten sound slower paced, more deliberate and focused. While these derelicts still use any and all metallic material they can get their hands on for sounding, they get around to using some primitive samples, and sound bytes too, for a somewhat smoother experience…

With rhythms placed, there is no need to go white-hot in industrial noise. Still not synth-popping or going new wave, Neubauten just get a bit more spacious in their delivery, slowing to a plod or a throb. At this point Blixa and company were really getting out of native Germany, and instead of getting safer in recording they stretched songs out, panned everything to extreme ends and generally made themselves less approachable despite their new use of meter.

What’s the use of inept horn wafts, air conditioner rhythms and muffled vocals backed with skittering cutlery? I guess they were the first to pick it up and take it semi-seriously, before others got into it (industrial) wholesale or whole-sale. And it got less fun. Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F. all soured. SPK or Nurse With Wound? Depends on how serious or how camp you want to take it. Still pretty solid with Throbbing Gristle. Einsturzende? They had quite a few good ones after this. -Wade

Throbbing Gristle “Heathen Earth” (Industrial, 1980)

220px-ThrobbingGristleHeathenEarthAlbumCoverI think this best represents TG’s sound: improvised noise in a controlled studio environment. You get a real White Light / White Heat intensity from this set. Chris and Sleazy push the live tape manipulation / sequencing / synthesis envelope to the max.

Anyone who is into the early schematics of actual industrial should give this a listen — it’s a wonder what a couple modified tape decks and a few synths can do. Gen-P and Cosey add a rather unsettling, [physical] / animalistic feeling to the mix; …, Gen-p coming off as a dictator. You might also want to find out who was present in the studio during this recording; a who’s who of the post-punk / avant-industrial elite, with just their presence adding an air of mutual-ritual to the whole thing. -Phillipe

Blurt “Beneath Discordant Skies” (Metadrone, 2015)

R-7711828-1447237295-8380.jpegThey’re back, though they never went away, really… Equal parts punk, noise performance and square-one rock racket, Blurt is a band that always has a pulse and it’s always pumping. For those that don’t know, Blurt is usually a trio run by sax player Ted Milton, and has been one of the most inventive groups to grace us from the late Seventies onward.

Normally this would be a capsule review of one record, but I have to touch on their self-titled LP and “Live In Berlin” because they are just so unique. In Manchester they were briefly on Factory and I dare say their records outshine the flashier groups like Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and the rest from that time pretty easily. Those records don’t sound the least bit dated. And as a live act, they were probably more rough and raucous than The Fall.

So here is the new one, with Ted as an old man, but he STILL sounds as inventive as ever. His playing is a unique spew and can’t be summed up as an Ayler/Ornette imitation. Lyrically he’s great and he always sounds wonderfully garbled. Longtime rhythm guitarist Steve Eagles is here. New drummer David Aylewood pumps along diligently. What more should I say? If you haven’t heard what some would call a post-punk gem, I’d give Blurt some attention. I’d also just call them a heck of a modern band. -Wade

Mi Ami “Watersports” (Quarterstick, 2009)

homepage_large.a4031480Mi Ami have an ability to execute aural peaks and valleys like few pop groups have ever known how to do. Within each individual song is a crescendo, from the whispered and paranoid panting of Martin-McCormick and subtle metal beating from Palermo, to a racket of all the brutal parts looking each other in the eye and screaming. Just as quickly, though, they can drop it down and develop a groove, usually with the assistance of the bass, that envelops one’s sense of rhythm, all-encompassing.

A brilliant example of this is the two-song assault of “The Man In Your House” and “New Guitar.” “The Man In Your House” begins understated and disconcerting; an effects-laden guitar line covers the track in an odd, quiet blanket. From there, Martin-McCormick’s whispers grow to shouts of sex and sadness, while his guitar screeches and wail. The suspense grows as the track gets louder, and then it immediately segues into “New Guitar,” a jittery, stilted statement of seemingly nothing, carried out with Martin-McCormick’s competent hands manhandling and tearing at his guitar. The song’s beginning is a brilliant resolution to the song before it, and once this primal energy beams out, the trio jumps back four steps and carries out a mid-tempo groove, complete with a bass line rooted in funk and dub.

So much of Watersports’ appeal is in its embrace of the physical, but the album’s final third is a dirge into the mental abyss. Indeed, the album consists almost entirely of the members going ballistic on their respective parts, but this happens so sparingly, if at all, in the final two tracks. “White Wife,” a manifesto towards sincerity and honesty, is quiet, sad, and slow. Here, the trio is exploring their sonic workspace in a very profound way: not through flexing their chops, but through creating space. The song, probably the most cerebral track on the album, dips and undulates until you get to “Peacetalks/Downer,” which, like the best of shoegaze music, creates volume in lines that should be quiet. It all builds without changing, until the album slowly fades into oblivion.-Tyler

Sun Araw “The Inner Treaty” (Drag City, 2012)

homepage_large.a1efc341Cameron Stallones, the man behind the wonderfully weird vibes of Sun Araw, gave us a more “sanitized” sound on “The Inner Treaty.” But don’t flinch, he hasn’t let his hot and dubby drone-rock go the way of sterilized studio work. Instead, he’s gone to the moon. And if you didn’t know this from Scientist, space is also a place to get dubwise.

If you picked up “On Patrol” or his collaboration with the legendary Congos then you’ll be ready for this one, though it is sparser to start instrumentally. It’s in the space between that he’s allowed his work to breathe and get weird(er). Opener “Out of Town” seems stretched to it’s furthest nth listenable, with reverberated vocals bounding in to keep you hanging on. As the album goes along the space closes in, until you reach the undeniably catchy and squiggly “Like Wine,” ending side one.

Cameron’s enthusiasm for his own decadently interesting tunes are exclaimed in simple statements of “Alriiiight!” and “Yeeeeaah!” throughout the disc. If each Sun Araw album could represent a time or place, they would actually all be considered very now and very near. “The Inner Treaty” is another beautifully contorted act committed to vinyl; Sun Araw brings a fizzing concoction of musical updates to your stereo. Reason to cheer! -Wade

Black Dice “Mr. Impossible” (Ribbon Music, 2012)

mrimpossibleIf I was hard-pressed to name a group important in music after the turn of this last century, live or on record, then Black Dice would probably make that list, near the top. Not quite affiliated with any subculture in the DIY/noise/hardcore contingent, they have always been carving their own path, going after what sounds good to their particular ears.

That’s good, because taking a feedtube of straight punk, or avant-garde, or whatever “out” material that’s lying around is a sure way for a group to marginalize themselves these days. The Black Dice instead listen to Carly Rae Jepsen or Cheap Trick or AC/DC or a local Disco station around Brooklyn… And that’s how we see what’s beneath all the tones, feedback and strange electronic romp; skewed and fragmented pop and rock hooks otherwise recognizable across America.

So here on “Mr. Impossible,” the last offering we have by the Dice who are now a trio, we have probably their tightest and most accessible album to date. It can still have people running from a room, but the hooks made by their strange machines are all live, and sometimes they can swing, even appearing conventional at times. And there be lots of hooks! Opener “Pinball Wizard” could rival the Peter Gunn theme if 30 seconds of it were inserted into some new crime series. “The Jacker” is a whirring, back-to-the-start groover that eventually breaks out and escalates wildly. And “Spy vs Spy” harks back to their older material; more cerebral, full of druggy loops.

It’s quick and easy to compare the Black Dice at a glance to the No Wave camp of artists that made NYC home. And the ultimate aftermath of that: groups and individuals working with anything, taking shape and eventually regressing/progressing to either rock-out or groove. Yeah, Black Dice do that, but it’s a new century and there are new forms to mesh. -Wade


Hella “Hold Your Horse Is” (5 Rue Christine, 2002)

a2970431076_10Modern Rock’s possible reality as natural progression post-Hip Hop/Drum and Bass? A product of over-saturated media youth?

Hella fall short of being a traditional rock group by only having two members, but tradition isn’t a relevant factor when the stuff these guys push feels so immediate. Debut album “Hold Your Horse Is” would be as good a place as any to start with their brand of hyper-fast prog rush. An electronic doodle kicks off the album that brings to mind 90′s gaming console sound chips, before the live element crashes through with “Biblical Violence” and from that point never lets up.

To produce the sort of manic nowness of your active day, Hella’s self taught drummer Zach Hill actually uses (in a relative sense) slow punctuated beats… but fills the space between by hitting the skins and cymbals as fast as superhumanly possible, creating a striking sound that’s not start/stop but rather start/gogogogogogo/start et al. While Hill flogs his kit, guitarist Spencer Seim plays spastic melodies, creates strange drones and chips away at you with repetition. And whenever necessary, they make neck-breaking changes. It happens a lot.

As crazed as all this may sound, the overall tone here is not violent or oppressive but rather triumphant, it can be used sonic pick-me-up; like chugging a pot of coffee to get through a heavily scheduled day. Does that help you? “Hold Your Horse Is” is about as focused and concise as their albums get and a solid debut… After this, the duo felt free enough to experiment in more electronic territory and at one point expanded their roster.

This album is near-live instrumental music synced to modern times, man made jams informed by all sorts of media blitzkriegs, and a document that is as good a tool to your life as amphetamine might be, if that’s your drug of choice. -Wade

Scritti Politti “Early” (Rough Trade, 2004)

51WGS4T6D0LBefore becoming an equally interesting pop group, Scritti Politti were actually a band brought up like Amon Duul… As a commune collective. But the performing three-piece core were more than a political message in a musical vehicle; they had one of the tightest rhythm sections of the post-punk vanguard in their native UK.

This collection of singles on “Early” begins with Scritti finding their footing on rigid tracks like “Skank Bloc Bologna” and “Messthetics” which utilize odd rhythms that are very un-rock like. It’s hard to really grasp what their sound is, but the production here makes everything seem dank and bass lines are always high in the mix, bubbling to the surface next to itchy guitar lines, drums and chimes.

But the real gems in this collection are from their single “4 A-Sides” which kicks off the second vinyl of this double LP. Not quite rock, punk or pop, disparate styles are fashioned together in such a way that seems so natural, you may miss all the great lyrics vocalist/guitarist Green Gartside brings to the mix. Part of Scritti’s appeal is that vocals accompany the music here and not the other way around; listen closely and Green’s ideas of breaking down language blends perfectly with their sharp and wound up style.

And closing out, you get to hear the beginnings of their second stage as a sort of soul group infused with socialist theory and even more interesting linguistic axioms… Smooth, smooth music for language nerds. “Early” is a great assemblage of instrumental workouts and word play like very little else! -Wade

The Pop Group “Y” (1979, Radar Records)


After the punk fallout of the late 70′s in the UK, many groups that didn’t go the route of repetition instead went down more interesting avenues, leaving the “rock” part of punk behind to amass dub, free jazz or funk and disco stylings into their rep. Most acts didn’t try as hard as The Pop Group.

Their first album “Y” is a stew of ideas that may not sit well for everyone, but is definitely worth investigating if you have a tough pair of ears. Early on you get the track “Thief of Fire”  which is actually about as conventional as this adventure gets, and it’s pretty kooky. Almost jangly, almost disco-esque guitar glistens against rough and tough funk basslines and metronomic beats. Until the track turns itself inside out with feedback, tribal drums and atonal sax… All the while vocalist Mark Stewart (who stands about seven feet tall) yelps and screams as anarcho-politico. For how much everything seems to fall apart, the Group remain in control and bring it all home.

Other tracks with tight playing include “Snowgirl,” side one closer “We Are Time” and “The Boys From Brazil” on the flip… All this angular playing may bring up thoughts of Beefheart’s Magic Band with more ill will. Most of their other audio adventures are woven together through free playing, sound collage, and dub editing. The almost pretty “Savage Sea” rests just below unsettling, nearly ambient, while closing cut “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” hardly abrades, ending with a plea and sparse arrangements.

Impressive as both a live and studio act, The Pop Group still manages to amaze after more than thirty years, and their recent reformation cues renewed interest in this disc. Fans of early genre bending music by the likes of PiL, The Minutemen, The Fall or The Birthday Party should take note. -Wade


Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981)

Moments of sheer idyllic bliss along with quirky weirdness. A lot of albums could be described in this way, but this is probably the most fitting. It’s got a sentimental and calm feel to it, forcing you to think about happy things. It’s almost as if the album is made up of a group of people you know, rather than a group of songs. Some of them are delightfully innovative; they charm the hell out of you, like ‘Telephone and a Rubber Band’ – which samples a telephone signal – sounding like some pleasant dream that makes you chuckle as you wake up. Each track has its own personality, be it thoughtful and calm or lively and energetic but there are rarely any sad moments. It may be relaxed, but it’s a very conscious record; you can’t fall asleep to it, which is a shame because it’s a kind of record that’ll put you into a really good dreamy mood for it, although, ‘Yodel 1′ and ‘Numbers 1 – 4′ could supply that. It’s also so much more of an organic record than its predecessor ‘Music From The Penguin Cafe’. That record sounds more like black and white kitchen floors compared to this natural-sounding wonder.

With this album, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra achieve something higher than cheefulness and/or dreaminess and achieves it with personality and charisma. An almost universally likeable record. —Joe