Friday, October 14, 2016

The Heartwood Institute-Calder Hall: The Story of Britain's First Atomic Power Station; Reverb Worship, 2016

While it is not at all unusual for a piece of music to be produced in homage to some sort of "real life" event, place, or dynamic, one has to admit that music in homage to a nuclear reactor could be thought of as, quite possibly, rather odd.
Anyway, that was Disaster Amnesiac's impression upon reading of Reverb Worship's recent release of The Heartwood Institute's Calder Hall: The Story of Britain's First Atomic Power Station. An intriguing disc, it attempts to tell said story across eight instrumental electronic pieces of varied style. The arc of the tale begins with cool, chill tones of Heat Exchanger and Graphite Core, these two tones setting a calmly rational mood; it's almost as if they are musical analogs of the mechanical engineering process. The pace quickens within Diagrid's incessant, dancing beat and bouncy synthesizer lines, and then slows back down for the melancholy whir and buzz of Bepo (this one, like the short opening piece The Shape of Things To Come, also has narration from an anonymous BBC voice over announcer). Things get glassily surreal during Turbine House, which also features nice, subtle acoustic guitar and 1970's-sounding synth hits.
Calder Hall's short duration ends with two more pieces: first, the upbeat, melodic Control Room, featuring more great analog sounds and hard, primitive drum programming; this one is Disaster Amnesiac's favorite tune on the disc. It just really moves. Secondly, Cooling Towers, with its quiet, contemplative mood, wraps things up. As I've listened to Calder Hall, and read the disc's liner note, I can imagine this one being played as the facility was being shut down for the final time in 2003. Fitting ending sounds for this interesting concept.
Disaster Amnesiac cannot know if Calder Hall: The Story of Britain's First Atomic Power Station is coming from a place of actual reverence or black humor, but I do know that its sounds are creative and enjoyable in their mostly chilled-out electronic frames. This one's super limited, so, if you want to hear it, I'd say find Reverb Worship's online presence pretty quickly.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Henry Kaiser/Alan Licht-Skip To the Solo; Public Eyesore Records #135, 2016

Attention electric guitar fans: Public Eyesore, Henry Kaiser, and Alan Licht have prepared a recording that Disaster Amnesiac suspects will be seriously up your sonic alley. The stated template consists of a rhythm section laying down a somewhat simplified rhythmic/chordal progression, upon which Kaiser et al can dispense with everything that leads up to the solo space and just get to it. Again: fans of electric guitar playing will find tons of enjoyment on Skip To the Solo.
The disc's 14 tracks are all formatted in a similar way that Zappa's Shut Up And Play Your Guitar discs were: brief spoken Dada leading directly into the quartet as they get down to the business of jamming.
And oh, how they do this! The rhythm guitar/bass guitar section, made up of Mikko Biffle along with Licht and Kaiser, lay down chordal sketches while drummer Rick Walker plays in an understated style that is both simple enough not to interfere and complex enough to be compelling to the the soloist and listener. Skip's tunes all swing like crazy in this way. As Disaster Amnesiac has listened, the thought has occurred to me that this music's rhythmic richness makes it ideal for either deep, focused listening, or as more of a sonic backdrop for working or partying. It has that kind of broadness to it.
Of course, the whole point of this set was to feature the electric guitar as a soloing instrument, and on that front it succeeds wildly. Standout solo action for me: the hard Sci-Fi chop and slice of File & Rank, the cutting Psychedia of Variations On The Jerry Garcia Secret Chord Progression, the spacey Fripp-ey tones of Rendezvous In Space, and the shiny melody of Ask Me About the Dorian Mode. These are just Disaster Amnesiac's picks, though. Every track on this one has compelling tones that are tremolo'ed, reverb'ed, even talk boxed into the head bliss zone for guitar solo maniacs.
The way this band gets down to the point of ripping out fun and fascinating instrumental music is beautiful. Again, if you're any kind of a fan of personal expression on electric guitar in the form of soloing, you'll truly want to seek out Skip To the Solo. Your ears will thank you for the effort.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Swim Through Darkness: My Search For Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali; Mike Stax, Process Media 2016

                 "...people are strange when you're a stranger..."

In some way, it feels almost corny to use a line from what's become one of the somewhat annoying "Classic Rock" staples to introduce the subject of Craig Vincent Smith here, but, honestly, this line kept floating to the fore of Disaster Amnesiac's perceptions as I plowed through Mike Stax's book about the man, Swim Through Darkness: My Search For Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali.
Still, one overriding impression that comes across, at least to this reader, is the overwhelming amount of strangeness, which quite clearly overflowed into a life lost in the darkened waters of Los Angeles alienation, that emanated from Craig Smith. Almost every interview subject recalls moments during which their interactions with the man were colored by an intense, frightening otherness, darkened energies that more often than not keyed their flight instincts to "take off".
Eventually, they all did.
Swim Through Darkness is Stax's attempt to tell the tale of a talented man who was initially likely affected by certain neurological challenges that were exacerbated by a tragic run-in on the Hippie Trail in Afghanistan. Smith seemed destined for a prosperous life within the Los Angeles entertainment world: his list of hep early to mid 1960's contacts was impressive to read. As mentioned, this often described "Golden Boy" seemed to evince some strange vibe that served to put people off even within that sun shiny world. As Stax spins the story further, what were initial hints at the tragic aspects of Smith's life become more and more apparent, more and more open as he became less and less moored within the shared reality of those around him. What eventually emerges from the tale is a lonely shell of a man, almost a ghost, really, inhabiting the streets of Van Nuys and Santa Monica, seemingly completely cut off from "reality" all together. A stranger.
It's to Stax's credit that he stuck with the story, and to read about the redemptive action that he finally took, revealed as the book closes, alone makes Swim Through Darkness eminently worth reading.
As with all of his articles for Ugly Things, Mike's research is highly in depth, and his treatment of the subject of Smith is incredibly moving.
Read and remember: be kind to strangers if at all possible. It seems likely that there are more than a few "Maitreya Kalis" shuffling about in our towns and cities. Their stories, while likely not as initially shiny as that of Craig Smith, should be equally honored within the consensus. Thanks Mike, for the reminder. Hopefully you found a fine place for that box.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Brandon Evans/Rent Romus/Alex Cohen/Philip Everett-Live KFJC 89.7 FM; digital download 2016

Brandon Evans's recent swing through the San Francisco Bay Area seems to have been a success. An appearance at Outsound New Music Summit with a workshop and a show, a large ensemble recording at Gold Lion Arts in Sacramento, and this set at the venerable Wave of the West, KFJC in Los Altos Hills.
Featuring what sound like four or five separate improvised micro-pieces, strung together into one long suite entitled improvisation, Live KFJC 89.7 FM has all kinds of sounds and interactions to be enjoyed by the Improvised Music fan.
Leader Evans gets great high pitched squeals and squalls from his alto and sopranino saxophones, while Rent Romus adds to the winds mix with his own signature riffs. Particularly compelling are Rent's post-Ayler lamentations and double horn harmonizing. The two sound great together; they were close musical mates within the early 1990's SF Jazz scene, and it's clear that their simpatico remains, and joyfully so.
Guitarist Alex Cohen's clean tones display a great sense of Jazz comping; his guitar often seems to take on a solidly supportive, almost bass-like rhythmic role within the quartet,  and when he solos he sprays great clusters of notes all over top of the horn harmonies. 
Multi-instrumentalist Philip Everett adds some of his surreal clarinet bleats and really great minimal kit percussive action. His popping rolls on a snare drum serve to move the music, and they are spiced with bursting interjections on small cymbals and bells; Disaster Amnesiac finds his approach instructive and very cool. Philip can do a lot with a little!
The overall feel of Live KFJC, obviously on account of these fours' great listening and playing skills, is tight and focused, with what strikes me as a great blending of Jazz, Improvised, and New Music influences. Any fan of these streams would do well to click on over to Brandon Evans's ever-expanding bandcamp page and dig in to this one.
Lastly, how 'bout that excellent cover imagery? Mysteriously cool!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Grateful Dead-Dave's Picks 19: Honolulu Civic Auditorium, Honolulu HI: 1/23/1970; Rhino Records 2016

It's been a few years since Disaster Amnesiac has published a new Dave's Picks review, mostly on account of my having run out of things to say about the Grateful Dead. Not that I've stopped listening: at this point in my musical fandom, that just won't happen. Certain of these archival releases have left me a bit cold, but after several spins of the most recent in the series, Dave's Picks 19, I just had to try to describe and enthuse a bit.
In the main, what prompted this review is the way in which this show features the Dead at one of those sublime, transitional moments, when the listener can hear the peak feel of their then-current creative incarnation while simultaneously hearing hints of newly emergent aesthetic, as well as refinements of past visions. This feeling is all over DP 19.
For starters, the January 1970 recording date of these shows places the band at the tail end of their psychedelic ranger period, and key tunes from this era, Dark Star, St. Stephen, and Turn On Your Lovelight were all given incredible treatment that day in Honolulu. Dark Star runs the gamut from abstractly spaced to sweetly melodic, definitely pointing the way from the lysergic maelstrom of the late 1960's ballroom era versions of the song to the early 1970's theater show nuance and joy. St. Stephen is tightly played, heavily grooved from the Kreutzmann/Hart drum section and sprayed quicksilver from Garcia's Stratocaster. Also lovely is the way in which Lesh steers the ending jam of into the rowdy Pigpen vibes of Lovelight. While nowhere near as raunchy as the St. Louis recording of same on a Dave's Picks from a few years, back, this version gets odd as Pig duets with what sounds to be some newly acquired pal. His usual psycho-sexual Blues shamanism is well on display, too, naturally. These three tunes, making up an entire disc of the DP 19, are all highlight examples of tunes that, for better or worse, the Dead were soon to begin moving away from. Disaster Amnesiac recalls an interview with Garcia in which he mentioned how they'd run out of musical options for Dark Star, how they'd "played" it, and these tracks bear proof of that.
Invisible time travelers from the future to that era needn't have worried, however, for even as the band was "perfecting" their 1969 standards, they were also rolling out the new "Americana" tunes that would set the tones for the early-mid 1970's. A loping, jolly Dire Wolf, heavy, emotional Black Peter (2 times) with fabulous ensemble playing at the "...see here..." bridge section, and tight, rollicking Cumberland Blues are all rolled out; Jerry even seems to like Mason's Children (admit it, those lyrics are pretty dorky!) enough to shred out some of that fine, sublimely flawed pickin' of his at the ending jam of that short lived song.  According to the liner notes, New Music dude and Phriend of Phil, Tom Constanten, is featured on DP 19 playing some of his last shows with the band, as his approach would not be useful within the new, somewhat rural vibes, but, still, he sounds as great on these tunes as he does on the 1969 oeuvre. Disaster Amnesiac wonders if there will ever be a Dave's Picks that features a full show with Ned Lagin, but that's another thread for another time.
As far as echoes of older Dead iterations, a gritty guitar performance of Cold Rain And Snow, more ensemble tightness from disc opener China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider, and an even grittier I'm A King Bee all hark back to the initial Psychedelic San Francisco scene from which they gained national prominence; all are great, but the real treat is the phenomenal That's It For The Other One, during which Bob Weir shows his then emerging front man skills, and the band shows all of the gestalt tightness that their fans love. It's seriously nuanced, with all kinds of interactions between all of the players. Primal Dead at its highest level of out/in jamming. Stunning.
It's occurred to Disaster Amnesiac that as I've been typing this latest screed, I could just go track by track on Dave's Picks 19. Each track has tons of sounds to love. There ain't exactly time for that, but I will say to any and all Deadheads or Grateful Dead fans: seek this one out. It's got everything that you've grown to love about the Dead. Easily one of my top five archival recordings of Jerry, Pig, and the boys.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Leonard/Day/Jerman-Isinglass; eh? Records #89, cassette ed. 2016

As promised in a recent private message, Public Eyesore/eh? head honcho Bryan Day has made some more recordings available to Disaster Amnesiac; it looks like he's ramping up production again! I'm happy and honored to be the recipient of so much great sound and music from the label.
It may be that I'm going out of sequence here, but the Leonard/Day/Jerman tape, Isinglass, had my immediate attention. Anything with Cheryl's deeply aesthetic organic/electric hybrids grabs Disaster Amnesiac pretty hastily.
Across seven pieces, put to tape over one year's time, this trio concocts soundscapes of deep, very organic nature. As I've listened, what at first sound like big slabs of sound reveal these great crenellations and nooks, small pockets to be delved into and investigated. One gets the sense that Leonard, Day, and Jeph Jerman put a lot of effort into letting the pieces unfold at within their own pace. Leonard's sound processes seem to act as guides, walking point into the exploratory auditory zones, while Day's invented instruments give some tonal and percussive action and Jerman's household objects color and comment. Disaster Amnesiac's favorite piece has to be the cassette's side one closer, during which feedback sounds jet out from the slow moving maelstrom. Among the other pieces, there are also fun sounds from bottles touching, strange whistles from who knows what, and all manner of curious tones, meshed together with a kind of delicate forcefulness. 
Disaster Amnesiac would advise the potential listener to don headphones for listening to Isinglass. Though calm on its face, the sounds that this trio makes have the deeply moving impact of massed mental glaciers or tsunami, oozing into the listener's perceptions with wide strokes that reveal hidden bits to be savored for their subtle surprises.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ben Bennett/John Collins McCormick-Pluperfect; eh? Records #87, 2016

Second up for review from the recently received eh? Records batch, Pluperfect, and Disaster Amnesiac will warn: be careful if you listen to it early in the morning in your car. This is what I did, and the opening high pitched scrawls from Bennett and Collins McCormick gave me a pretty hardcore ear blast to start an AM commute. Being a fan of Noise and experimental forms, even as I'm waking up, not like it was a bad thing to have happened, but....most definitely a shock!
Once over all that, and after repeated listening, I have found Pluperfect to be a fascinating trip into the unique sound worlds of Ben Bennett and John Collins McCormick, one that seems to unfold at a pace totally under the control of these two musicians. The method seems to something like this: smaller, quieter themes are brought forth from various sound sources, then expanded upon in rhythmic form, then folded up and back into silence, from which a new theme emerges. What Disaster Amnesiac has enjoyed immensely as I've listened is the duration of those second aspects; Bennett and Collins McCormick do admirable jobs of controlling the pace of these various emerging themes. This pacing is admirable and deeply moving.
From a more technical point, the way in which John embeds laptop electronics within the overall sound field is really cool; often times it seems as though laptop generated sound starts to trump acoustic instrumentation, but this does not happen on Pluperfect. Disaster Amnesiac has mentioned how incredible Ben's stick control is, and it's utilized herein. Some of my favorite moments when listening to the disc have featured what Bennett drumming on what I believe to be a type of barrel drum, seen at Berkeley Arts Festival a year or two back. Pluperfect's two tracks, More than Perfect and Hadn't, clocking in at about an hour's length, provide these and obviously many more experimental sounds. I only wished that I'd been there at the recording, listening as their vibes bounced off of the walls of Marlboro College's Regal Hall!