BLACK HOLE WHITE MAGIC by Chris Ziegler (Arthur No. 25/Winter 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 25 (Winter 2006)


White Magic: Meanwhile, outside the city gates…

Black Hole White Magic
By Chris Ziegler

Reviewed:
Sunn O))) & Boris
Altar
(Southern Lord)

White Magic
Dat Rosa Mel Apibus
(Drag City)

I had Altar complete in my head before I ever heard it: Sunn O))) and Boris together to make the heaviest thing ever, an album that would burst cochlear membranes and the confines of three-dimensional spacetime. Modern music’s two most immovable objects: what would happen when they met? Maybe nothing—in fact, hopefully nothing, and Altar would be pure void, a subatomic drone that would go beyond Sunn O))) and Earth and Flood to the low slow B-flat hum NASA heard coming from a black hole around the same time Sunn O)))’s White 1 came out. “A million billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear!” NASA said, complete with exclamation point. That was the true sound of the universe, and if any humans could play along, well, here they were: two bands with discographies so colossal that you couldn’t deploy anything less than three syllables per adjective without feeling cheap and weak. (Cyclopean? Titanic? Hephaestean?) NASA called this new science “black hole acoustics” and that was the best explanation yet—better than the New York Times’ cutesy ‘heady metal,’ anyway.

But Altar is the un-heaviest. Six or seven minutes into opener “Etna” (played in the spirit of the volcano that will devour Sicily) presents the riff-vs.-drone grappling match the collaboration demanded, and it is satisfactorily hephaestean. Last year’s Black One and Pink anticipate these moments—Pink’s intro “Parting” especially, though Boris drummer Atsuo rarely pushes a straight 4/4 rock beat, instead mating drums to drone with a rush/recede dynamic that must have cheered the Coltrane students in Sunn O))). Black hole acoustics is science for space and gravity and not amplifier athleticism, though, so credit to Boris and Sunn O))) for Altar’s sidewise moves. Sunn O))) provokes orgasm and Boris melts minds—we know that and so do they, so let’s improv something else.

“Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” is probably the songiest thing to ever bear a Sunn O))) stamp; Internet drones are straight-facedly calling it “folk pop” and while that’s a bit broad, it’s … understandable. Earth’s Hex had passages of twilight-zone quiet and “Sinking Belle” collects them together: reverbed piano that blooms and dissolves like ink into water with Jesse Sykes (singer from Seattle’s Sweet Hereafter) sounding like Nico at her frowniest, or actually sounding a lot like Sybille Baier, another dissipated ‘60s teuton-chanteuse. After that is “Akuma No Kuma,” an all-synth-no-guitar track (with Joe Preston growling through a vocoder) that fits the fire-and-fog Blade Runner opening, and after that the desolate “Fried Eagle Mind,” a wave of tube tone washing over Boris guitarist Wata’s ghost vocals. “Blood Swamp” has to float back home: rumble finally turns to roar as Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil gets a guitar to sound like something that breathes mud—or blood?—to stay alive. A hephaestean finale, sure, but not the truncated concussion both bands favor. There is clear-to-cloudy precedent for everything on Altar in the million billion minutes of discography belonging to Boris and Sunn O))), but it’s softness as much as the UNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNworgworgUNNNNNNNNNN we’ve known and absorbed. Three songs into Altar, the album start to float. Heavy is light.

* * *

I would hate to just bluntly ask White Magic if they actually believe in magic—too obvious, too impolite. But even a lump like me can tell that Mira Billotte’s songs about trees and wine and sun and sea refer to more than just a holiday fit for Fairport Convention. White Magic sings one thing and secretly means another, or several secret other things aligned in symbolic harmony. The band put a labyrinth on the back cover where they could have put a map. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Billotte and a new set of supporters—including partner Douglas Shaw, Jim White from Dirty Three, Tim DeWit from Gang Gang Dance and noted New York percussionist Tim Barnes—built White Magic’s first full-length Dat Rosa Mel Apibus around her famously agile voice and the cascading piano melodies she plays to match Bert Jansch’s precision fingerpicking. Rosa is gentle on solemn guitar-and-voice songs like “Katie Cruel” (also covered by probable White Magic inspiration Karen Dalton) and “What I See,” but spins into psychedelic experiment like the sitar raga on “All The World Went” and the dub/reggae arrangement (and production!) for finale “Song of Solomon,” which is almost an Althea and Donna song until the accordion starts pumping toward climax. That’s a dizzy finish to a record that begins with a single piano note, and a happy release for the ideas half-hatched on 2004’s Through The Sun Door EP.

Billotte’s voice is (as always) a bird in flight, and she writes lyrics in careful camouflage, packing love songs and lonely songs with loaded notions of sleep and night and sun and light. It’s potent imagery that just begs projection from the listener. One verse of “Hold Your Hand In The Dark” and I was convinced we’d read the same Philip K. Dick essay: he said, “Sleepers awake!” and she sings, “You’ve been sleeping well, my friends/sleeping well/but if you wake, it may be too late.” Her tense mention of hands in chains and waiting in secret are from a particular idea Dick had about … well, too much of this might put this review to sleep. Different listeners discover different things.

Maybe that means Billotte is just writing easy absolutes—like everyone else, she loves love and dislikes… chains? But of course not. That seven-petaled rose on the cover is too close a copy of a Rosicrucian engraving; the translated title “the rose gives the bees honey” was a line used by alchemists to distinguish the search for spiritual truth from the search for worldly gain, and on Rosa’s second song Billotte sings, “Gone was our need for the things of this world/all we had was love.” Rosa feels full of these century-to-century connections. Hidden in this post-Pentangle piano-psych record is something ferociously righteous. White Magic believes in good research.

Reviews by C and D (Arthur No. 10/May 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

REVIEWS BY C and D

Eagles of Death Metal
Peace Love Death Metal
(Rekords Rekords/AntAcidAudio)
C: [singing along to “Kiss the Devil”]: “Who’ll love the devil?/Who’ll love his song?/I will love the devil and his song!”
D: Ha! This is party-starting rock n roll music! They should’ve called it, “There’s Beer in the Fridge.
C: No doubt. Doubtless. No doubt about it. Doubt-free. [sings along:] “I will kiss the devil on his tongue!”
D: He is the male Peaches!
C: The singer-guitar player Jesse ‘the Devil’ Hughes has the best moustache going in rock, and he knows it. I can hear him now: “C & D, you’ve been rocked by The Moustache.” Have you seen his cape?
D: This cannot be. What year is this? It’s like Mick wearing the Omega at Altamont. Totally Rolling Stones.
C: Jesse is Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Josh Homme—he’s the guy from Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age—is just here to do Beat Number Three on every song and help shift some units. They say it’s “Canned Heat vocals with stripper beats” and you can’t beat that description so let’s not even gonna try. It’s a pretty raw recording, sounds like a rehearsal tape with all the talking.
D: We will have to subtract points for that.
C: Yeah, all that between-song tech talk is the rock equivalent of skits on hip-hop albums. Funny the first time, maybe, but after that?
D: Eagles of Death Metal, you were rocking the party, and then you’re talking amongst yourselves about when to come in on the beat?!? Thanks for fucking it up!
C: “Speaking in Tongues” is the coolest song. Can you hear that sound?
D: Is that a car honking?
C: It’s the CD! They mixed it in! Totally brilliant! [singing along] “Toot scoot! Boots! Scoot scoot!” I have no idea what he’s saying but I like it, I like it. I said, I like it.

Pink Grease
This Is for Real
(Mute)
C: Okay, let’s get this party started again…
D: It is the Cramps. Wait, it can’t be the Cramps. Is this that “Fire in the disco” band?
C: Not it’s not Electric Six, it’s Pink Grease. Which sounds like a nightmare lubricant. Really good name for this band…
D: [hearing the riff kick in o “Fever”:] Whoa! They’re the house band for a creepy kind of party.
C: This is music for the wasters, and their married friends who are tying one on again, just this once.
D: In the right circumstances, this could finish somebody off. This is music for that kind of party where you do something you regret for weeks. [musing] Possibly even for the rest of your life…
C: They’ve got a cool thing going on—garage rockin’, good drums, new touches when you don’t see it coming: saxophone, a good chorus, some slide guitar, an out-there keyboard solo. [dreamily] They should tour with the Dirtbombs and Eagles of Death Metal and Peaches and Ween…
D: Could someone tell me why there are so many good-rockin’ dance bands right now?

John Wilkes Booze
Five Pillars of Soul
(Kill Rock Stars)
C: Then again, there’s this.
D: “John Wilkes Booze”? Terrible name.
C: I know. I gave it some time on the hi-fi cuz of the booklet. I mean, how bad can a band that salutes, in text, at length, Albert Ayler, Marc Bolan, Yoko Ono and Citizen Tania be?
D: Very, very bad, from the sound of it!
C: Is this a Make-Up and Jon Spencer parody band? Talk about putting the high back in high-conceptualism.
D: ‘Five pillars of soul”?!? Fake soul is the worst!!!
C: I’m embarrassed for these people—they have some cool inspirations and ideas about what they want to do but they don’t have the chops or the instincts to pull it off yet. Maybe they’ll get better…
D: They’re from Indiana? HA HA HA HA HA !
C: I’d like to see them try this in New Orleans.

The Thermals
Fuckin’ A
(Sub Pop)
D: [Definitively:] Guided by Voices. But harder, with more of that old piledriver beat.
C: It’s actually a whole different band, a trio called the Thermals. I like ‘em. It’s urgent. Reminds me of Lee Renaldo from Sonic Youth, bashing away in his garage with the neighborhood teenagers cutting school. Oops, dude just knocked over the ten-speed.
D: [shaking head furiously] I just spilled my beer!
C: This guy’s got one of those voices where you don’t care if he doesn’t really sing. 12 songs, 28 minutes. No solos, but it’s not hardcore or screaming emoters. Just cool. He’s determined, he’s holding on.
D: These are high-energy super-tight anthems! Where’s the towel?
C: [singing along] “Anything you break, you can probably mend/Anything you can feel, you can feel again/Hold tight, remember today.” Shit, those are words to live by.
D: Wisdom from a man called Hutch Harris. Thank you, Thermals! Yo don’t have a moustache but you have rocked C & D!

Mission of Burma
ONoffON
(Matador)
C & D: [stunned silence]
C: How can it… How did they…
D: How can it be this good?
C: They haven’t made a record in 22 years… Some of the people in this issue of Arthur were born and grew into adults in the time between Mission of Burma albums.
D: They sound hungry and creative. [singing along] “Now I live inside the circle!”
C: Inside the circle, but still outside the box. How to describe the pleasures of Burma for the people…hmmm.. well, it IS guitar rock, it has melodies and punch and strange flair, and again, like that Thermals record, there’s a sense of no wasted breath, no gloss, no glamour, just direct intention-into-thought.
D: It’s like a greatest-hits record from the last 22 years, except not only were these songs not hits, they weren’t even released!

The Icarus Line
Penance Soiree
(V2)
C: I saw these guys last year. Their singer reminded me of Richard Ashcroft in the vintage Verve days, when they were at their most cosmic and loose and desolate and swaggering… 1995… Skinny dude with cheekbones, just GONE, going for it—
D: [hears guitar break in on “Up Against the Wall”] YES!
C: —amidst the maelstrom. This one is called “Spit On It.“ Okay, this is what you call RIGHTEOUS SQUALL. Mixed by Alan Moulder, who did stuff with My Bloody Valentine, so there you go…
D: [laughing] Alan Moulder spat on it! That’s holy spit. The old Moulder grease…
C: [listening to “Spike Island”] See, and just when you think it’s all shaped noise, here comes a song with a solid, almost disco rhythm and a guitar refrain—something to pull you, something to grasp onto.
D: They’re an L.A. band. There’s a little Jane’s Addiction in them, isn’t there? Especially in the vocals!
C: That’s true. But Perry always had something interesting to say, I don’t know about these guys, I can’t understand a single word he’s singing.
D: He’s hiding behind the Wall of Squall.
C: Then again… [listening to the beginning of the 9:07-long “Getting Bright at Night”] Well, here we go.
D: They bring it down to earth so they can go back into space!
C: I just want to tell the people that at 6:15 in this song, this simple thing happens that makes you love rock n roll turned up to overwhelming. I know we were talking about finishing people off earlier, but maybe this is the real Finisher right here.
D: Right now, my ears love me.
C: Searched, destroyed. Now let’s see if they can write a song on an acoustic guitar.

The Secret Machines
Now Here Is Nowhere
(Reprise)
C: Well, they’ve got a good drum sound, that’s certain. But…um… Is he going to do that same tempo for 9 minutes?
D: Sounds like it. I think I’ll be needing to smoke some more of those special cocktails for this one. [Leaves room, returns happier.] Ah, now it’s changing. This is good. They’re originally from Texas, this really takes me there, out to the nudist lakes, drinking some Shiners, laying back in the sun with your girl, nobody around, music coming up over the sand from the box, lookin’ up and just tripping out to the great big… big I don’t know..
D: The big Big.
C: Yep…
C: [repeating lyrics to “Road Leads Where It’s Led” ] “We communicate by semaphore/No language/We’ve got flags of our own.” I like that.
D: They’re so laidback, they’re almost out of the pocket. A big cinematic sound with lots of air between the different sounds…
C: They’ve been watching Zabriskie Point, I‘m guessing.
D: They’ve definitely been visiting the dark side of the moon. Especially on this song [“Pharaoh’s Daughter”].
C: You know it. “Breathe, breathe in the air.” [listening to the concluding/title track] There’s the Neu/Can/Kraftwerk motorik rhythm, done right–this is like Flaming Lips used to sound sometimes, back when they’d let it out a little more when Ronald was in the band… [listening to the song explode around 7:00] Yes!
D: Big but not pompous, psychedelic but not goofy. Yes! I nominate these guys to do a co-headline tour with The Icarus Line.
C: Good stuff from secret machines and special humans. Thank you again, Texas.

The Veils
The Runaway Found
(Rough Trade)
D: Echo & the Bunnymen?
C: Ha! He DOES have a bit of the Ian McCulloch in him. This is a 20-year-old fella from Australia. There’s some real beauts on here, D… [clicks ahead to “The Leavers Dance”]
D: Radiohead. Starsailor.
C: Yeah, I guess… But listen to those strings come in… it’s so gorgeous. I think sometimes people like us get too caught up in “spot the influence.” It’s one thing when you’re hearing straight, passionless, contrived mimicry—plagiarism—but it’s another when folks’ voices are just…similar. What are they supposed to do? Not sing at all cuz that voice is taken already?
D: [thoughtful, agreeing] To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: “A good song is a good song is a good song.”
C: Anyways, I think it’s beautiful stuff. There’s some vintage Britpop rave-ups, there’s ringing guitars. There’s some middling tempo numbers, which are hard to do, when you think about it… And there’s these autumnal, oceanside ballads. [listening to “Vicious Traditions”:] You can see how it could get all histrionic and spittle-flying, but he reins it in just right.
D: [quietly] So young, and so anguished already…

White Magic
Through the Sun Door EP
(Drag City)
D: At last, a female voice!
C: [listening to opening track “One-Note“] This is one of favorite songs of the spring.
D: Charging piano!
C: It’s serious, but not Tori Amos melodrama. “Some-thing is a-bide-ing!” Hmm…
D: “White Magic.”
C: Best name since Comets On Fire. Lotsa witchy stuff going on right now, eh? [Listening to “The Gypsies Came Marching After”] Wow here’s another stormer. This is probably referencing Fairport Convention or Incredible String Band or Pentangle but I just don’t know that stuff well enough… I guess you’d call it folk-rock—it does swing, you can move to it—and they use traditional acoustic and electric instruments and so on.
D: I like her voice. Strong, feminine, with hints of tenderness and loss.
C: This song [“Apocalypse,” the EP’s final track] is a sorta blues groove—it’s like Heart, if they were amazing.
D [musing]: PJ Harvey, with flowers and beads in her hair.

Espers
Espers
(Locust Music)
C: More really lovely, absolutely spellbinding boots-over-pants modern two girls-one boy psychedelic chamber folk-rock for you…
D: [eyes closed, rapt] My, my, my.
C: Reminds me of Damon & Naomi and Ghost. Very, very pretty, and not at all dippy or precious, which is the way these things can so easily go. [listening to “Meadow”] See, cuz they can write actual songs, they’re not just inhabiting a texture or a form…
D: It cannot be possible. What woods are all these people coming from?
C: They come from the Shire, sire. Actually they come from Philadelphia.
D: [listening to “Voices”] There’s no drums, there’s no backbeat, but, [quietly, seriously] I can dig it anyway. Listen to me when I say this: This is music that lifts the veil.

Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.
Mantra of Love
(Alien8)
C: Speaking of lifting the veil: here’s the new Acid Mothers Temple studio album, two very long tracks. The first is a traditional vocal, with Miss Cotton Casino singing, that goes…
D: [6:25 in] There it goes now, off into the universe… Happy trails everywhere.
C: For those out there who don’t know, the Acid Mothers are a Japanese psych outfit known to the acid cognoscenti for volume, trance and hair frizz. They’re on a serious far-out trip and they’re gonna do it, sometimes on the turn of the dime, whether or not anyone else is interested. I’ve seen them play a 100-person room like they were playing for the galaxy…
D: This is the best-recorded AMT album I’ve ever heard!
C: You can actually hear the bass beneath all the Hawkwind psych-bleeptronics and Acid Mothers “super guru” Kawabata Makoto’s super-guru-guitar guru-ifying all over the place. A proper mix, finally. [listening] Aaaaand then back down to the central melody. This is humanity at its finest: dignified—cooperative—transcendent.
D: So good! I must nominate the Acid Mothers as this planet’s ambassadors to the Galactic Council!

Merzbow
Last of Analog Sessions 3-CD box set
(Important Records)
D: Ack! What the???? Something’s wrong with the needle!
C: Oh, D. So easily confused. This is Japanese noise artist Merzbow, that’s what the stuff sounds like…at first. Then you get into it. You have to listen closely.
D: I will NEVER get into this!
C: Well, that’s your problem. For the non-philistines out there in Arthurworld, I want to say that his packages three Merzbow albums—Catapillar, Medamaya and Springharp—recorded from ‘97-99 by Masami Akita, in his final analog tantrums before he went digital. As it says on the back of this beautiful silver-on-black package, “Akita plays Self-built junk—”
D: Yeah this is junk alright—
C: “—with contact mics, various filters and ring modulators, various effects pedals, EMS Synthi A synthesizer, EMS VCS3 Synthesizer, Moog Synthesizer, GR-500 Guitar Synthesizer, Tapes, EXD, Drum Machine and Oscillators.” It’s good stuff, although a little of this goes a long way and I couldn’t tell you what my favorite track is. You’ve got to be in a very certain and very open mindset to listen to this stuff, but it’s worth it. Shit is meditational, bro!
D: Listen, I get this when the DVD isn’t connected right to the stereo, and that’s free of charge.

Loren Connors
The Departing of a Dream Vol. III: Juliet
(Family Vineyard)
D: Much better. Lonesome guitars sounding occasional hopeful notes in the desert.
C: It occupies its own unique space. Not quite ominous, but not settled either. Restless, haunting. Just one man doing “guitars, tapes, sounds.”
D: This is what that Daniel Lanois guy wishes he could sound like.
C: It’s only 30 minutes, but I swear it feels like six hours. This will slow you right down, just like yoga or a good bath or chopping vegetables… Wow.
D: [asleep]

Thee Silver Mountain Reveries
Pretty Little Lighting Paw
(Constellation)
C: Four tracks, thirty minutes. “More Action! Less Tears!” is a great title: it’s like Godspeed You! Black Emperor gone early Spiritualized, with a sense of humor. [Listening to “Microphones in the Trees”]: Now we’re getting down to the REAL anguish of the evening. Guitarist-vocalist Efrim is Wayne Coyne realizing all hope IS lost, actually and death is no comfort. But there’s this ease at the end of the song, a moment of brightness. Epiphany? Or maybe it’s just the street lights buzzing on, like in Antonioni’s L’Eclipse…
D: [stirring deep into the 10-minute “Pretty Little Lightning Paw”]: What is this…? A choir from the dark stars…
Continue reading

New music: HIGHLIFE

Download: Highlife – “F Kenya Rip”

[audio:http://www.arthurmag.com/magpie/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/F-Kenya-Rip.mp3%5D

White Magic’s Sleepy Doug Shaw awakes and, with his Highlife mates, gives us this lovely North African dream reverie. From the forthcoming Best Bless EP, via the good folk at The Social Registry of Brooklyn…

MIRA BILLOTTE: "A secret diagram of the Universe"

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KOSMOS: MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

AN INSTALLATION BY MIRA BILLOTTE
AUGUST 21st – SEPTEMBER 4TH
THE CREATIVE ALLIANCE AT THE PATTERSON
3134 EASTERN AVENUE, BALTIMORE, MD
WWW.CREATIVEALLIANCE.ORG • 410.276.1651

Artist and musician Mira Billotte (White Magic), focuses on the harmony of the divine ratio between ourselves and the Kosmos. The installation transforms into an environment of spiritual exaltation, a place of ritual, a temple of commune with the Kosmos, bringing forth an ancient instinct, theurgy; the ritual practice of uniting with the divine.

As within us there is a microcosm, so created in this space, a microcosm of the divine macrocosm; sand, sand paintings, Mandalas, fabrics, elements, incense, projections, altar objects, plants, other organic materials and esoteric symbols create a secret diagram of the Universe.

Closing Ceremony
Friday September 4 • 8PM • 10$, 8$ For Members
WHITE MAGIC w/ Zomes (Asa Osbourne from Lungfish) and Daniel Higgs

Led by the haunting vocals of songwriter Mira Billotte, with Sleepy Doug Shaw on guitar, NYC based (and Baltimore connected) White Magic was formed in 2003 and has toured with the likes of Animal Collective, Sonic Youth and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and has released two EPs and one full length album on the Drag City label, among other limited releases. The band covered “As I Went Out One Morning” for Todd Haynes’ recent Dylan film, as well as appearing on Hal Wilner’s “Rogue’s Gallery” compilation last year. Tonight Billotte offers new spectral sounds, complete with visuals and full regalia, celebrating the close of her mystical exhibition in the Main Gallery. Zomes (with Asa Osbourne from Lungfish) and Daniel Higgs open. Doors @ 8pm. Show @ 9pm. $10. All ages. $8 mbrs, stus.

myspace.com/whitemagicmusic