O, Little Stars

by Keiron Phelan & David Sheppard (2002, Rocket Girl)

Like the name implies, O, Little Stars is an album of tiny intentions and small ambitions, often so slight that it’s easy to dismiss its soft, fluttering soundscapes.  And indeed, I’ve been apt to overlook its little, unassuming charms.  But tonight, things are a little different.  For some reason, I picked this disc off the shelf, perhaps just looking for some nice background music whilst doing some tired e-mailing and forum-hopping before dragging myself to bed.

However, the album’s charms have slowly begun to unfold for me.  I’ve always liked the opening track “Azizintla Fireflies”, and way its slightly-blurred analog tones flutter about as if buffeted by a light spring breeze.  And “Zurich Sunday” is such a short, quiet song that its wrenching impact seems quite incongruous, but there’s something in the way the melody moves through its scale that seems immeasurably sad.

Other tracks, though, have eluded me.  Until tonight, that is.  Tonight, “Sleep” is quite the apropos track, its shimmering, Steve Reich-esque bells and piano lines having quite the lullaby effect, suggesting the onset of slumber and the dreams that might come with it.  The playful keyboard tones on “Snowfall Over…” do somehow suggest big, fluffy flakes descending from a grey sky, while its rhythms—which sound glitchy, but on further inspection are too clean for that—have the same delightful crunch that your boots make as you tromp through the banks.

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The Boy And The Tree

by Susumu Yokota (2002, The Leaf Label)

When people discuss Japan’s underground/experimental music scene, it seems like they usually focus on its more extreme facets.  For example, the psychedelic bombast of Acid Mothers Temple or the nigh-legendary sonic terrorism of Japanoise artists like Merzbow, Masonna, and Aube.  But lately, I’ve found myself far more enamored with the Land of the Rising Sun’s quieter, subtler side, and right now, it doesn’t seem to get much better than Susumu Yokota.

Susumu Yokota’s Sakura was a thoroughly atmospheric and engaging album.  As I listened to it, however, there was one track that stuck out from the others.  Not because it was better or worse, but because it was just different.  Whereas most of Sakura consisted of glassy atmospherics and drones, shimmering textures, and minimal beats, “Uchu Tanjyo” was something earthier and more primitive, merging the cut-up vocals of some tribesmen with pulsing synths and tribal drumming.  It was an intriguing track, but a bit out of line with Sakura‘s flow.

However, that track could be considered a bit of foreshadowing to Yokota’s next album, the much more disorienting and hallucinogenic The Boy And The Tree.  Now, musically-speaking, The Boy And The Tree doesn’t have much in common with “Uchu Tanjyo”.  You’ll find little, if any, tribal chanting or aboriginal dialog within its 12 tracks.  Instead, it somehow feels more apt to think of The Boy And The Tree‘s soundscapes as a description or sonic map of the world inhabited by “Uchu Tanjyo”‘s speaker.  Or at least a painting of the world as seen through his eyes, revealing a place full of wonder and beauty, but also one that is extremely alien and more than a tad foreboding.

I would use the world “mercurial” to describe The Boy And The Tree, but that word somehow seems far too inadequate, as does “hallucinogenic” and “psychedelic” (and Yokota’s subsequent releases have grown only stranger).  Indeed, any mere description of the sounds that flow through this album like peyote-fuelled visions feels incomplete.  There’s something about the act of hearing these sounds that imbues them with life, as if by listening you see age-old ceremonies, carried out by primitives at the dawn of time, suddenly spring forth before your eyes.  As if the jungle mists and desert mirages fall away, revealing ancient and mystical locales that have remained hidden for millennia.

“Fairy Link” and “Future Tiger” may reference Javanese gamelan music and African tribal drumming respectively.  However, you don’t get the sense that Yokota is doing so merely because such elements sound “cool”, or because he wants to hop on a world music bandwagon.  Rather, he seems much more interested in truly tapping into the same sort of spiritual and metaphysical elements that their respective cultures might have ascribed to them.  Listen to them and you feel as if you’ve suddenly plopped down in the middle of some dense rainforest, surrounded by unseen ghostly voices—and the sprightliness of the music, full of weaving tones and harp-like shimmerings, evokes some sort of fertility rite.  The same could be said for “Red Swan”.  With its undulating horns and stately procession, the mood is just as ceremonial but far more solemn, with perhaps even a hint of mourning.

“Secret Garden” does evoke some secret and sacred place.  Shapeless yet foreboding atmospheres groan in the background, as if reminding the listener that they’re stepping on hallowed ground.  Birds flit about, observing the listener from the dense foliage.  Meanwhile, bells, ghostly vocals, and sparse dulcimer-esque tones flutter about, their etherealness somehow making the song feel less real. (One has to use “-esque” quite often with Yokota’s music, as the nature of the sounds sometimes makes it difficult to pin down what they really are.)

When the sounds fade away, one wonders if they actually heard anything at all, or if it wasn’t just some sort of daydream.  But then a flurry of activity suddenly erupts, as if your mere presence has awoken something, or you’ve stumbled across yet another ancient rite.

Just as Sakura had a track hinting at The Boy And The Tree, this album has a track that links back to Yokota’s previous work.  “Thread Leads To Heaven” is a beautiful and fragile track, a latticework of sparse guitars and shimmering, cascading synths anchored by a hypnotic, theremin-like melody.  And in Yokota’s inimitable style, the piece never remains static, but instead seems to reveal new facets with each new iteration—almost like Yokota composed the piece as one might grow a crystal or weave an intricate pattern.

I find it quite difficult to do normal, mundane activities while listening to The Boy And The Tree.  For example, I was folding blankets while “Secret Garden” played in the background, and as odd as this sounds, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything “real” at all.  Rather, I felt like I was in the middle of some waking dream, or perhaps some modern variant of dreamtime (Yokota even describes the album as his “dream story”, something primal and natural).  I had to fight the urge to just sit down, close my eyes, and be taken someplace far, far away.  Where, exactly, I don’t know.  But if Yokota’s sonic descriptions are even remotely accurate, it’ll most likely be a wonderful and mysterious place nonetheless.

Supra Argo

by Supra Argo (2002, Omega Point Records)

A Detroit-based duo (any resemblance to the White Stripes ends at this point) when they recorded the tracks that would more than half a decade later become their first album, Supra Argo split with one EP release to their name. Having reformed, the opportunity to release the debut album that never was back then must seem like musical closure of sorts.

I could quite easily use this review to disagree with a few of the points made in the press release accompanying the album. The author of said press release likens this album (recorded circa 1996, shelved until 2003) to the work of Simian, Travis, and Radiohead. Listening to the album reveals a kind of dark electronic pop that now sounds ten years out of time. Supra Argo actually belong to a definition of alternative music that predates even Radiohead’s earliest releases.

Initial impressions are not good. “Off Blue” showcases some thoughtfully layered synth sounds, while sounding like nothing so much as a demo track for a by now outdated piece of equipment. The album can only really improve from there. The black comedy of “Crash My Car”, with lyrics like “I ran your dog over and you can’t even sue me” delivered in a nervous croon by Collin Rae (most of the songs are sung by Karen Sandvoss, Supra Argo’s other half), is memorable for something more resembling the right reasons, as is the hymnal harmonising on “Headless Giant”.

But traces of that first impression last.  While this is not a bad album—Supra Argo spring the occasional surprise melody, and they’re even danceable on “Silveresque”—there’s the sense that it was a little out of time when it was recorded, which makes it even more of a period piece now.

Written by Damian McVeigh.

Another One Lost

by Lake Trout (2002, Palm Pictures)

I realize this might have some calling for my head on a pike, but Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief left me feeling pretty cold.  People who had downloaded the album months before its release swore on their firstborn children that it was the band’s best album to date, and while I took those statements with a pinch of salt, I did want to hope for the best.

I suppose Kid A was about as good as you could hope for as a followup to OK Computer, but what little I heard of Amnesiac did nothing for me either way.  But to be quite frank, Hail To The Thief was a disappointment for me, with only a handful of songs containing anything resembling the sense of experimentation that many claimed to find in the album.  Not surprisingly, I haven’t even missed the album since a friend borrowed it and never gave it back.

However, within minutes of listening to Lake Trout’s latest full-length, I began hearing everything I had hoped to hear on a new Radiohead album.  There was a dramatic sense of discovery and reckless abandon that permeated the disc, lending to its songs both a confident swagger and a certain naive beauty.  There are parts of Another One Lost that sound like Lake Trout stepped into the studio with the express purpose of one-upping everything Thom Yorke et al ever committed to tape.  And at the same time, other parts are so inspired that they sound like they were truly recorded without any knowledge of Radiohead whatsoever… a remarkable feat given today’s saturated alternative/indie music culture.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the entire album is successful.  The most frustrating thing about Another One Lost is its inconsistency (a holdover, perhaps, from Lake Trout’s early days as a jam band).  There are several parts of the album that don’t so much make me cringe as wonder if the band really thought out the implications of their musical decisions before they finalized the masters.

The opening track, “Stutter”, does just that for its entire length, somewhat crippling the initial listening experience.  “Her” is the first of several instrumentals on the album, and stumbles over itself as echoing guitars and falsetto croons drift over a sputtering programmed beat (indeed, the drum programming throughout the album often seems a bit hit or miss), feeling a bit too much like a demo.  And “Mine” finds vocalist/guitarist Woody Ranere chanting variations of “Just a little piece that’s mine” over a shifting soundscape.  Compared to the other performances on the album, it feels a bit lazy, not to mention repetitive.

But for every one of the album’s flaws, it seems like there is at least one moment that impresses me with its breathless creativity and beauty.  “Say Something” shifts gears several times, starting off with grunting bass notes, icy synth drizzles, chiming guitars, and the Blinker The Star-esque vocals of Ranere.  As Ranere’s falsetto breaks into the stratosphere, the song enters into an OK Computer-style breakdown/build-up that culminates in a burst of chrome-like guitars, crashing drums, and synth klaxons.

“Holding” is perhaps my favorite track, opening with Ranere plaintively crooning “Run, run as fast as you can/So I can catch you again/I won’t remind you/So you can pretend/Someday I’ll live again” over a delicate duet of guitar and Rhodes piano before the song explodes.  And the band creates the finest Radiohead moment since “OK Computer” on the song’s bridge, as the instruments fall away to reveal a shimmering Rhodes enveloping Ranere’s fluttering falsetto as he croons “We’re all afraid” in the best anxiety-ridden Thom Yorke tradition.

As mentioned before, several instrumental pieces float throughout the album, allowing the band to experiment and delves into more obtuse arrangements and structures without the limitation of vocals.  Although “Still” bears some similarity to “Her”, with a wordless falsetto tuning in from some distant AM station amidst sparse guitars, it feels far more fleshed out, with a subtle bassline/Rhodes combo gracefully adding dimension as it winds its way through the song.

The album winds down with two of its finer instrumental moments.  “Look Who It Is” is the album’s most alien and imposing stretch, with the groans of dying industrial complexes and vast windswept spaces slowly given shape and form by percussion and a series of hypnotic, ringing guitars.  Occasionally, vocals make an appearance, but rather than lend some sort of emotional warmth to the piece, their digitized, abstract patterns serve only to make it stranger and more haunting.  And album finally wraps up amidst the swirling, shimmery drones and gauzy textures of “Iris”, which pull back to reveal a delicate lattice of jewel-like guitar notes and exotic, flute-like sounds.

For all of its strong points, Another One Lost can sometimes be a frustrating album due to the diversity of styles and sounds the band employs.  It seems like the band went in with a completely blank slate and just went for broke, trying anything and everything that came to mind whilst in the studio, practice space, or tour van.  And frankly, not all of it works.

Some of the ideas tossed out don’t stick at all, or feel awkwardly executed and pulled off just by the skin of their teeth (i.e. the drum n’ bass/middle-eastern/angular post-rock track “Bliss”).  But the sheer diversity of sounds employed on the album, combined with the array of styles that Lake Trout dives into with equal parts ambition and recklessness, ensures that plenty of Another One Lost does work—at least, enough to make it an album worth seeking out should you be in the market for some obtuse, conceptual art-rock.

Take Care To Fall

by Drekka (2002, Bluesanct)

You would think that after years of working behind the scenes with the likes of Low, Rivulets, The Iditarod, and The Pilot Ships as the head of BlueSanct, that Michael Anderson would have a pretty good grasp on this whole experimental, droning folk thing.  You would be correct.  

I always have a twinge of nervousness when one of the business types of the indie rock world steps up to the mic.  Far too often these sorts of projects are ill-conceived, poorly executed, and should never see the light of day (you reading this Brandon Ebel?), but hell, who’s going to say “No” to the boss?  In Anderson’s case, however, it would have been better if people had been slapping him around in an effort to get the thing done faster.

In the works since 1997, Take Care To Fall is Anderson’s first proper release and is remarkably fully-formed for something that began as some simple four-track experiments with friends.  The disc is filled with echoes, hum and room noise, drones, and fragments of sound that are arrayed around Anderson’s simple, understated acoustic melodies.  Vocals, when used, are placed much as another instrument would be—as one part of a larger whole rather than a focal point.  That approach pays off well, particularly with the truly haunting female voice wafting in and out throughout “Fractured”.

While Drekka certainly shows the influence of Anderson’s label roster, his voice is purely his own.  This is no vanity project—Drekka sits quite comfortably alongside the rest of BlueSanct’s roster, which is no small feat considering the quality of that label’s acts.

Written by Chris Brown.