Just the act of opening this release is a treat onto itself. From the wildly ornate, hand-crafted design of the inner sleeve, to the blood stained texture of the physical tape, I had more fun fishing this music out of its casing than I have had actually listening to many of the records I’ve plugged into this year.
Musically speaking, the tape opens with a refreshing meekness and monochromatic percussions—skeletal repetitions that channel the minimalism of Tony Conrad’s youth. These naked drones creak their way to oblivion just long enough (and just dense enough) to mask the subtle changes that slowly meander and evolve from here on out. This first side is all about push and pull—the static versus the potential versus the actual. The tone here is one of restraint, the feel is that of a muted jazz performance; that is, the first half of the album consists primarily of sketches, unpolished concepts that have yet to ferment or mature. This isn’t to say that side A is disposable, quite the contrary, it is the necessary stage-setter to the tape’s later highlights, the virtual set of causal factors necessary to ensure the explosive culmination of ideas laid out in side B. It is the matches, the gasoline, and the spark to side B’s incendiary rawness. While side A can certainly be a frustrating experience (it never takes off as the anticipation seems to promise), it still holds the listener’s interest while side B peers above the horizon—think of it as a surprisingly entertaining lay-over before a long awaited flight.
Putting all the cards on the table, the magic on side B is the real reason you need to snag a copy of this release. Nearly all of Vol. 1’s heaviest moments settle at the bottom of the tape, this sediment is thankfully all highlights.
A free-wheeling horn screeches and sprays upon the entrance of side B, accompanied by what sounds like the wails of a psychologically-pained elephant call, a sand-in-glue howl that floats for what seems like an eternity. The second half of Vol. 1 is a jungle of drowsy aquatics, dubby ripples, and planetary echoes that blissfully transports the listener to a realm of visual acrobatics and constant armchair vacations. This test-tube pin-cushioning is a prime example of the more satisfying end of the neo-psychedelia being spawned by the tape culture that, for better or worse, is currently so in vogue within the blogosphere.
While all the experiments here do not always flesh out into fully realized, living, breathing creations, they lend the record a certain accidental charm. This endearing trait reveals Ocular Gymnastics for what they really are: keen and incensed artists whose maelstrom of ideas flow so violently that they hardly have time to learn their footing.
With Vol. 1, Ocular Gymnastics have knit a space-dusted blanket under which both themselves and the listener can hide, an escape where we can imagine a world where what matters is not blog-hype, download counts, or even genuine critical success, but art.