Exploring the Voids of All Known Undergrounds
by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
first published in Arthur No. 11 (July, 2004)
Girls rule, no problem. We’re all in “agreeance” with that. One girl who is totally ruling right now is KAREN CONSTANCE from East Sussex, England. She’s been peeped a couple of times over here in the USA whenever her loverboy Dylan Nyoukis, mastermind provocateur of exquisite noise mayhem and art through his Chocolate Monk enterprise and his own Prick Decay—now called Decaer Pinga (Spanish for..uhh, Prick Decay)—comes over to lay down his self-anointed “rotten groove.” And there she is, regal and astounding, in her creative flow. But she has yet to really “play” over here. The first time Prick Decay rocked the USA I believe she was part of the ad hoc ensemble then but that was primarily Dylan and his sister Lisa (aka Dora Doll)’s deal.
When we first went to check out the All Tomorrows Parties festival in 1999 we ran into Dylan, Lisa and Karen. At that point Karen, known then as Karen Lollypop, was involved with a couple of projects. One being something called The Polly Shang Kuan Band (named after the great 60s martial arts mistress of Hong King cinema), which was basically Karen and whatever female friendos she saw fit to punk out with. The other was her solo under the moniker of Smack Music 7. The gang were in some kind of holiday spirit vibe, even though it was a cold and wet U.K. spring hell, and they were draining every tall can of Carlsberg in sight. Dylan and Karen ended up taking a nappie-poo in our sound engineer’s bed and were assertively escorted out. We were trying to figure out how someone could fall in love with the genius Nyoukis without being a world-class artist on their own. So we took a chance and asked Karen to do an Ecstatic Peace 7”.
She explained her situation with the two bands, PSK Band and Smack Music 7, and immediately sent us a track each. They were incredible. Each had a sensual and sophisticated measure and moved with a minimalist’s grace. This was not generic squawk and squeal, which we were ready to accept, but something a bit more stately. Karen sent a color collage for sleeve art, which pointed to the fact that she worked as well as a pretty wild visual artist. Needless to say we were proud as a felched pumpkin to throw this baby out there. A few Smack Music 7 releases have come out before and after this: She’s A Mystery Radio CDR (Hells Half Halo), Pep Up Your Monkey cassette (Krush Proof), Exchange In An Earthworm cassette (Spite) and a duo called Lollydor (with the since deceased Phil Garner of Labrador) who did the cassette Stress Sounds (Kylie). Just recently Karen has laid down her most enthralling session to date and has so far split it between two cassette releases Typewriter Hell (Since 1972) and Spittin Hell (Open Mouth). The noise space evinced here is at once old-time, not unlike classic UK/Euro industrial, though strikingly fresh and alurringly understated. These are essential in the miasma that exists now in cassette experimental offerings.
Last I heard was that Since 1972 was preparing to release a split cassette of Smack Music 7 and solo love noise by Tovah O’Rourke of Dead Machines. Which automatically makes Since 1972 best fucking label so far. Damn. The Polly Shang Kuan Band have two CDRs on Chocolate Monk, one untitled and the other The Eye of Horus. There’s also a Karen Constance/Dylan Nyoukis duo CDR called Here Comes Blood Stereo (Absurd— a Greek label which doesn’t list this recording on their site. Nyoukis lists it on Chocolate Monk site as being on the Audiobot label, but assures me through email that it’s on Absurd. But also that Audiobot released a CDR of Dylan in collab with a buncha loose wires including Ms. Constance called Mysterious Blue Soups of the South but, again, Audiobot doesn’t list this on their site either…so…you figure it out). Last issue we hipped you to Bill Nace who plays with Chris Corsano in Vampire Belt and runs the Open mouth label. Whilst bombing around the Chocolate Monk offices in Brighton he and Dylan and Karen formed the heavy fudge-tone unit Ceylon Mange. They have only a few gigs under their belts but have already been a fairly in-demand trio on the subterranean noise skank circuit. The few releases so far have been intriguing if not downright beleaguering: The Dirt Drinkers CDR (Pinkskulls) and Charlotte Church Burners cs (Since 1972). A couple of other musical milestones of Karen’s we have yet to see or hear but are looking forward to swallowing whole are the Karen Lollypop Vs Spiderhorse & Black Alaska cs (Hanson- unreleased) and the Karen Constance & Erikki Sannemaki CDR (Chocolate Monk). If either of those labels could turn us on to this goodness we’ll reciprocate surely with sweet gooed panties. Aside from the music wonderment of Ms. Constance is her killer art. Her paintings and collages feature emotional wildlife and spooked demons in high-color relief. A few images are available to see on a UK art-site but what we really need is someone to print a decent first catalog of sorts.
Speaking of visual artists and noise one of the strangest and most significant artists of the late last century would have to be JACK GOLDSTEIN. Goldstein came out of the initial scene of CalArts, an artist academy in Los Angeles that succeeded in creating an environment where artists coming out of the cool head of ‘60s conceptualism developed the keen idea of actually transmogrifying such non-consumer concepts into sellable Pictures. Indeed, the concept became “Pictures,” and they were, in a very L.A. sense, remarkable, new and suitable to hang. The mentor at CalArts was John Baldesarri who encouraged Goldstein and cohorts to follow this post-modern route and take it to New York City because that’s where the moneyed art world eye was and they would either love it or eat it. As it were, the New York art world loved it and ate it completely up.
The new art culture of these CalArts grads and the New York gallerists they became involved with in the big money ‘80s became competitive and freakish. While David Salle, from CalArts, and Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, (from Hallwalls in Buffalo, but following the star of the CalArts gang), became world renowned and wealthy, Jack Goldstein became perturbed and offended by the nature of competition and political posturing. Goldstein was an outstanding artist but his work never broke through to mainstream success in the manner his contemporaries did. He battled a weird psychosis of drugs and bitterness, disappearing for lengthy periods throughout his life and in 2003, he killed himself. Before his suicide he spent considerable time putting together a manuscript of his thoughts both biographical and straight-up emotional and it has been collected by his friend Richard Hertz in a gripping book called Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Minneola Press).
A lot of these artists—Ericka Beckman, Ross Bleckner, Barbara Bloom, Troy Brauntuch, Eric Fischl, Matt Mullican, David Salle and James Welling—went on to become major players in the ‘80s art market, some more than others. And quite a few of them, as well as various critical voices, intersperse chapters with Goldstein’s writings. What becomes of this is probably the first book written by young artists of this particular generation, the same one that came to a sense of identity alongside the first American nomads of punk rock, wherein the process of art and friendship is divulged in wrenching retrospect. Goldstein’s chapters spill the gut on what was happening not only in the first years of what has become the most influential contemporary school of American art studies but in the pre-real estate boom streets of Soho and the East Village.
I remember these guys bombing around Max’s Kansas City and CBGB and connecting the energy of No Wave and punk to their gallery work. This is where the paths cross with the cranked up guitar compositions of Glen Branca and the slo-mo violence in the paintings of Robert Longo (who did the cover art for Branca’s The Ascension LP; on a similar note the aforementioned James Welling was the photographer who snapped the Sonic Youth Bad Moon Rising cover). It was an enclosed scene hardly venturing above 14th Street and it was fueled by new values in money, sex, art and music. Each chapter is a reflection on these days and is a captivating glimpse at the mindset which existed. And it’s a blast to read as none of it is couched in dry academia (well, some of it us, but not to any detriment) and is very very chatty and gossipy but still delivers the goods on the process of making art and the desire and devotion to that livelihood. Jack Goldstein’s paintings had an exquisite vibe but he also made objects such as records which is where the noise quotient of this review comes to play. The records have become impossible to find but can be heard at http://www.ubu.com/sound/goldstein.html Our favorite is the self-explanatory Two Wrestling Cats. Jack also made a few films early on, such as a mesmerizing loop of the MGM lion roaring ad infinitum. Google Jack Goldstein and you’ll find lotsa good info on this intense and important figure.
Got a few nice new slats of of vinyl from Brooklyn’s cunning Social Registry label. First up is the eponymous debut LP by BLOOD ON THE WALL, a trio who remind me a bit of what a collaboration between late ‘80s Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500 and the Gibson Bros. might have sounded like. Which means, I guess, that they rock in a sorta hard, smart and guitar-y way but retain a soft French center and have very dark teeth as well. Second is a 2Lp set by ICEWATER SCANDAL, who used to use the much lousier name, AM Radio. This new one, No Handle, makes much more personal sense to me than their last one did, maybe because their sound is so diffuse, so utterly slack, that it really needs to sprawl across yr sofa in order to make an impression. That said, No Handle sprawls pretty well. It also staggers a little and maybe even stutters, which is pretty cool when it’s done in such a low blood sugar kinda way. Guys, gals, all friends now—even for two side-long tracks! Cool. I’m just glad that no one let their youth go to waste. Adjacent to this is the Horizon Fall EP by PAINTING SOLDIERS. This is actually a solo project by Icewater’s Andrea Hansen, and is a severely excellent hoot into contempo free-folk form-stone. Hot and bothersome!
Haven’t heard from the skinny and excitable Japanese noise dude S. ISABELLA. S. Isabella is the same cat as Government Alpha. Government Alpha is in reality a lad named Yasutoshi Yoshida. Basically it’s harsh noise and Yoshida makes it. He has a label called Xerxes, which has released a fountain of harshness through the years. As S. Isabella he becomes more involved with collaboration it seems. We haven’t been keeping up with Yoshida’s torrent of releases but one came dropping at our doorstep with a weird enough slap. It’s an LP of S. Isabella “playing” Stabat Mors called The Relation Between Man and Woman (AbRECt). Stabat Mors are a long standing German dark industrial sick noise entrail spewing evisceration unit. The kind most appreciated by the clean-cut kids of Japanese noise extremism. What’s going on here is actually a collaboration betwixt these two freaks outfits from 1997. They use texts from Yukio Mishima and Heidegger where rotting flesh and the rotten male mind in all its gross typicality are exposed. Fizzing, spiraling deep noise without too much gore spillage which makes it somehow interesting due to these guys not being exactly shy from necroskum power scree. But it does kick out a fair share of super brutal depth charges. As well as bizarro backwards femme vox. The cover is an original painting on wood all in an edition of 100 copies.
Hey, I haven’t written a book all day. But I better get cracking, ‘cause MATT WASCOVICH wrote three and I’ve just finished reading them. Wasco, of course, is a Cleveland bard, as well as an editor of many fine wordsheets via his Slow Toe Publications, which also issued these three hummers while I slept. The first is Level Act, which feels to me like it’s about music and bands and clubs, but I cannot prove it. Suffice to say, the word-clots are balmy. The second is Blinking Envelope—a scattershot travelogue, poeticizing scenes and walks and visions that have gripped Matt’s wanders across the country. Each of them contains a little piece of the essential whuh of place, making it a fine fuck of a read. The third is Thee Closeouts. With its introduction by the great Jack Brewer, and its extremely dense dark imagery, it might be the best place for new fangled readers to begin approaching Wasco’s work. Previously I had been attracted to the growing lightness evident in his newer poems, but the material in Closeouts shreds some serious dick and/or cunt. Check it out.
Is it just my imagination, or do some recent Revenant releases actually sound better now that Runt Records has done them on vinyl? I can’t be exactly sure, but hey, these records are as much a pleasure to hold (and behold) as they are to hear. For my taste, there is just something exquisitely tactile and pleasing about the heft and feel of a vinyl record. Call me a fetishist is you will, that’s the way it is. But I’d be curious if you would not have a similar reaction when handling these items. I refer to JOHN FAHEY’s Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today, his gorgeously aggressive and dreamy swan-song; American Primitive Vol. One, the virtually dessitive collection of insane pre-war gospel wailers, there is nothing else at all like it; and finally, there’s Earliest Recordings by the STANLEY BROTHERS, which is the ur-source for all lost hillbilly despair. Or so it seems some days. Anyway, these things are damn nice to have on vinyl.
California has been awash with fresh noise blood as of late. One of the more industrious personages is JOHN WEISE who has been issuing split 7”s left and right on his Helicopter label since 1998. A one-time member of the acclaimed noisepunk thrash combo Man Is The Bastard he has recorded as Bastard Noise and Sissy Spacek and has collaborated with everyone from Merzbow to Brume to The Haters to Wolf Eyes. His set up is homestyle electronic input output with software spazz icing the action. Another L.A. insane noise lover, in fact his site is called iheartnoise.com, is PHIL BLANKENSHIP who has performed as LeftHandedDecision before changing the name to the more charming The Cherry Point. His label Troniks has released a bunkerload of slashing fire music all in the key of torching Hollywood’s sick celebrity skull. Both Weise and Blankenship have become the cornerstone proprietors and activists of harsh L.A. noise documentation and are more than worthy of yr hungry nodes.
While we’ll confess to not having played the CD that Jonny Davenport sent of his band, The Frankfurt School, we have checked out his ‘zine, WAVELENGTH (not related to any previous mag of the same name) and it is a totally cool guide to what’s going on in the Toronto underground as regards bands, shows and whatnot. It also has a good review section and nice critical contests (like Cocteau Twins vs. Abba) that will make your next visit to the toilet a sheer pleasure!
Snappiest DVD in a while has to be CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE, a theatrically released film from 1971, directed by Richard Crawford. Filmed in San Diego, it tells the story of a Marine who comes home on leave from Vietnam and falls in with a winsome hippie lass and the politico-druggies with whom she shares a pad. Sounds like a fairly typically ‘60s film, yeah, but there are lotsa extremely interesting moments in the film, and the non-high-budget quality of the shoot gives everything a very realistic quality. The rock clubs they film in are real rock clubs, the protests in they film are real protests, etc etc. The authenticity of locales, plus the mean-edged realism of the straights’ political banter, and the moral confusion of the title character really make Captain Milkshake an outstanding genre flick. Also worth mentioning is the fact that L.A.’s legendary Kaleidoscope actually appear playing live for two of the film’s sequences. There are limited theatrical showings of the film being done, but if you can’t make one, I strongly suggest viewing the DVD, if you have any interest in the visual literature of hippiedom.
We decided to take a red eye out to Australia to see if the noise improv scene had developed any further than the last rumblings we felt from such insane tripzoids as The Menstruation Sisters. The kneepants-sporting customs officials pointed us towards The Rhizome Label just outside of Adelaide. Within the Rhizome warehouse were speakers blaring out shards of electric guitar fuzz and over heated amp destruction. What it was was Rhizome’s newest 3” CD release by the duo of AREK GULBENKOGLU AND ADAM SUSSMAN. These gents are claimed by many localese as probably Australia’s best two improvisers. Arek is based in Melbourne and was/is a member of beautiful free-sound outfit DWORZEC. Adam’s from Sydney and plays sets of gorgeous & brutal guitar. Adam is also in super-minimal outfit Stasis Duo. We snagged this baby up as well as about a dozen other CDs—all with the same kind of tan paper packaging and all fantastic in their new-OZ sacred sound vision. The ones that consistently blew our headphoned minds upon return to USA were THE LOST DOMAIN—Something Is (RHCD10) which is weird folk howls not too far from some of the No Neck Blues Band’s more accidental moves. Also SIMON WICKHAM-SMITH—murrinh kullerrkkurrk (RHCD08/09) which is taken from the Wick’s OZ tour 2000, where he really got inside the ivory soul of the piano and prepped it with teeth and tongue, all the while somehow blowing some strange drone flow from what seems like bagpipes. If any pics are available send ‘em over. Also, JULIAN WILLIAMS—Leaf Rain 1995-2000 (RHCD07). This dude was in the rather excellent Hi-God People as well as Solids, Above Ground Pool and Bamboo Sel. Most of this CD is a composite of smaller releases by the man. He’s logged years into hard drone rock dementia with a sick electronic fuel gassing wicked almost Gate-like walls of sheer wham. There’s a bunch of other ones we checked out, but they’re all sold out such as Rhizome’s proprietor Jon Dale’s heavy switched-on unit MOTH who had a couple a great sides such as The Secret Tapes (RHCD12), Ghost Town By The Sea (RHCD05) and Kodak Ghost Poem (RHCD03X) all of which are heavy-fueled gas drones. Also the long tone mania of LEIGHTON CRAIG on his Organ Notes 3” disc. And some very cool recordings by the classic UK noise/sound improvisors ASHTRAY NAVIGATIONS When You See The Moon, You’ve Got To Howl (RHCD04) and Tristes Tropiques (RHCD02 – co-released with Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers and Black-Bean & Placenta.) and Julian Bradley, Neil Campbell And Sticky Foster’s The Lift, Brighton 14th March 1998 (RHCD01). You may be able to locate some of these lost jewels through Eddie Flowers’ Slippy Town site in the USA or the Fisheye site in the UK. Good fucking luck. But be on the boat when Rhizome releases the Dredd Foole & The Mv/Ee Medicine Show “Buzzin Fly” lathe 8″ and prose booklet and The Blithe Sons lathe 8″ and the Richard Youngs/Simon Wickham-Smith split 10″ and the Leighton Craig Terminal Moraine 3″cd-r and the Armpit Mano O Mano CDR and the Paintings Of Windows CDR and the Jon Dale/Kynan Lawlor 3″CDR. no shit. And, according to the Rhizome Label blog site also expect a Jon Dale CDR on New Zealand’s Birchville Cat Motel’s Celebrate/Psi/Phenomenon label, and a few Jon Dale/Kynan Lawlor duo tracks to turn up on a compilation being curated by Hi-God People head honcho and venerable Bee Gees fan Julian Williams.
As much as the Pacific Rim kicked our asses it was nice to be able to cruise up the West Coast towards the potted air of Eugene, Oregon. Our pals Comets On Fire still live up here and we were hoping they’d be in full psych-rock rage with Ben Chasny slicing atoms with his hypersonik finger stick but it was actually by invitation of Comets electronic junk drawer master NOEL HARMONSON. He mentioned something to us about passing on a tape of Leprechaun music. We could NOT pass this up and fucking balled it up Highway 5 outracing CHIPs and other doofus lawmen. What Noel turned us onto was Leprechaun Pt. 1 on the newly minted Brained cassette label (LEP001). So basically the Leprechaun here is Noel or at least his channeling of what he loves about leprechauns or, at even more least, the movie Leprechaun (his favorite). If you’ve ever seen Comets On Fire in full steam heat you know Noel is a manic motherfucker of the most sick rock electronic workout really not heard since early Allen Ravenstein Pere Ubu. Leprechaun then is Noel unchained and unhinged and unfettered by punkoid rock n rollers and it was worth hitting the north to grab it. Leprechaun 2 is due any day we hear.
Anyone who had tried to assemble a decent set of Lee Perry records has certainly been rump-blasted a few times, by either no-Perry albums masquerading as his, or by crappy compilations annotated in an utterly half-assed and misleading fashion. If this sounds like you, then jump (don’t float) to get a copy of Gary Simons’ SUPER SCRATCH (Secret History Books), which totally lays bare the truth of Scratch’s recordings of the 20th Century. It woulda been nice if there was an index, but Simons give the full story and a critical overview of each record released with any purported Perry involvement up through 1999, and it is a massively useful book.
A swank and very useful record is HAT MELTER’s Unknown Album (Crouton Music). The music was recorded by two duos consisting of cello & percussion (steve Hess, jeff klATt, jon MuEller, matt TurnER—get it?). Their improvised tracks were then plunderfied in the studio by C. Rosenau. The resulting music is quite fantastic. Some passages retain the long-thought stream of the original performances, other bits are shot at your head like fist-sized chunks of rock salt. One kind of sound is more stinging than the other, but it’s not worth quibbling.
For some reason, we still think of GANG WIZARD as a band with its basic thrust in punk muddery. Why this continues to be our sad lot I dunno. ‘Cause their new split eponymous LP with ALGEBRASSIERE (Black Bean and Placenta/Breath Mint/Deathbomb Arc/etc) is a gush of air that is free from all known styles. There is talk (in some quarters) that the Algebrassiere side is the free-er of the two, but such conversation is just a lotta bull! Show us one single non-destroyed form on the Gang Wizard side and we’ll gladly eat your hat. Sure, the tools that these young Californians use are “rock” tools, but the stuff they get out of them is purist munge. It varies between accreted noise-form (feedback-laced, natch) and the kinda free-plonk that makes hot ducks wiggle from sea to shining sea. And truly, they seem to be introducing some new instruments into the mix as well, although the sonics are too crabby for us to get anything like a firm handle on what the hell it is they’re actually doing. Beside pleasing the bejeezus outta listeners, that is. Algebrassiere are from Baltimore and their blow is sweet and weird in a way that almost recalls some of Smegma’s early early crudity. Stylish!
Of all the bands to namecheck, I was surprised as hell to see Portland’s CLOROX GIRLS mentioning early Red Cross. And it probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind as a reference either, but now that they brought it up, well, yeah, I can hear it. The sound on their eponymous Kurt Bloch-produced debut LP (Smart Guy) is clean and classic, just like an early ‘80s SoCal punk band doing Ramones-based tunes. And it may be a little less mush-mouthed than Red Cross, but it has a basic goodness that is harder to ignore than a trouserfull of antlers.
Got a few old favorites back with fresh sheets, as well. The new release by John Fell Ryan’s EXCEPTER is an EP with two tracks, “Vacation/Forget Me” (Live to Stereo/Fusetron/Excepter) that is rather more spacily minimal and proggily electro than the debut. Pulses emerge from the dark and treated vocals and gloops rise up to meet them head-on. Which is about all you can ask some mornings, eh? The new album by OPEN CITY is called The Birth of the Cruel (Thin Wrist) and it brims with the wonderfully cracked sounds you’d expect. Two guitars and a drum crawl slowly over the parched hills searching for water and you can feel the skin bubbling and bursting off their backs. These guys make a sequence of small events feel like a goldang earthquake. Tell Buster Verlaine the news. And several of our good buddies are represented on the BABYHEAD comp LP from Sacramento (SS Records). Duchess of Saigon display their spasmo-anti-punk raunch, Sexy Prison do their pickle-throated electro-gush thing, Klondike & York get it across in splendid drums + tenor-skronk fashion, A-Frames growl as thickly as they can. There are even a coupla great French bands (Blutt, whose “Astrid” is nice avant-punk and Crash Normal, whose “Quit Looking at My Tits” bloots in fine electro-punk-meets-RWA stylee). What more could a thinking mook request?
Blackbean and Placenta: http://www.blackbean.tk
Captain Milkshake: http://www.captainmilkshake.com
The Cherry Point, Troniks label:
Chocolate Monk, Hell’s Half Halo and Since 1972 labels:
Karen Constance art:
Crouton Music: http://www.croutonmusic.com
Dearthbomb Arc: http://www.deathbombarc.com
S. Isabella/Stabat Mors LP available from: http://www.radiantslab.com/DroneRecords
Leprechaun/Brained/Noel Harmonson: 111 Cypress, SF, CA 94110
Live to Stereo: 382 Jeff Street, Bushwick NY
Mineola Press: http://www.minneolapress.com
The Rhizome Label: therhizomelabel.blogspot.com
Runt: PO Box 2947, San Francisco CA 94126
Secret History Books: firstname.lastname@example.org
Slow Toe: http://www.slowtoe.com
Smart Guy: http://www.smartguyrecords.com
Social Registry: http://www.thesocialregistry.com
Thin Wrist: http://www.thinwrist.com
John Weise, Helicopter: home.earthlink.net/~johnwiese/helicopter.html