Last year I featured Moniker Records as the Chicago label was building an eclectic release schedule for 2012. Following earlier 2012 releases by masterful Venezuelan troubadour Yva Las Vegass, inimitable guitarist Dan Melchior, and transnational synth/bass punks Hot & Cold, Moniker’s proprietor Robert Cole Manis assembled an extremely busy fall release schedule. Four upcoming releases push the label deeper into the realms of outsider songcraft and experimental music. I briefly caught up with Manis in Chicago during our cross-midwest move, and he confirmed his label’s onslaught.
Manis started Moniker Records after working on two successful reissue campaigns with Drag City Records. His original J.T. IV project, featuring the music of Chicagoan John Timmis, IV, is receiving another repress by the Drag City / Galactic Zoo imprint. Unsurprisingly, Manis is working deeper into Chicago’s underground with his forthcoming projects, releasing the first album by industrial/gospel pioneers ONO in more than two decades. Full lengths by Milwaukee synth songstress Stacian and New Zealand’s Kraus are also forthcoming, as is a 7″ from Kansas City’s art punks, Lazy. Manis complements these acts with forthcoming works by Chicago acts Rollin Hunt and The Hecks.
These fall releases are eye-catching because they expand Moniker’s previous output into several directions. In many ways, these releases complete the logic of previous works by Jealousy, Trailblazer, and John Bellows, firmly cementing the label’s grasp of krautrock, punk, and storytelling. The reissue of Kraus’s Space Commander (Dungeon Taxis) brings this singular experimental work to vinyl, touching an extreme end of guitar manipulation and warped sonic exercises.
Manis noted, “When you hear Kraus, you KNOW it’s him. That’s what ultimately drew me to signing him.” Kraus’s album full of bright manipulations and unapologetic guitar shredding deserves that stamp of recognition.
I first encountered the aura of ONO during an Illusion of Safety industrial collaboration a couple of years ago, when members of the group (or perhaps the actual group itself?) played a damaging set of noise that included pummeling sheet metal and twisted vocal interplay. I remember the set being so loud that many of us wore earplugs and had to cover our ears with our hands anyway; the sounds of ONO are completely uncompromising and out of the reach of security or safety.
The collaborators of ONO lurk behind Chicago’s notable 80s underground, taking the city’s penchant for dark noise to its greatest logic. Yet, the band’s forthcoming LP, Albino, remains spiritually optimistic and vibrant. The group’s vocal-driven noise is testimonial in the deepest way, pushing beyond mysticism to a brutally real faith. The whole operation reminds me of the unrestrained attitudes of the earliest rhythm and blues records — the emphasis is on the songs, no matter how weird things get, and there’s a perfect honesty about the proceedings. “This is it,” the band says, chanting, howling, and winding through percussive industrial hymns.
“As far as honing in on a particular sound that will only come through osmosis,” Manis said about his label’s new, expansive sounds. “My ultimate fear is loving a piece of music and having to pass on it because its too ‘different’ from what people expect from Moniker. To me, that’s the beauty of music — the boundaries are endless and anyone can do it. Who should deny that?”
This attitude corresponds with ONO’s music, which is more of a spectacle than anything, escaping genres and easy classifications. Perhaps that’s what makes their music so exciting, terrifying, or engaging — one cannot simply listen to an act like ONO and know how to react. It’s extremely confrontational music in that regard, but in its structures rest beauty and an honest creativity.
Stacian’s Songs for Cadets pulls the label’s experimental songwriting into an accessible but surprising realm. Stacian layers her synthesizers and vocals to produce maximum intensity throughout her concise songs. At their best, these songs are damn-near dancefloor ready, electronic anthems that emerge from their layers. Perhaps the most stunning element of this new LP is Stacian’s voice, which she masterfully manipulates to follow the rhythms and timbre of her synthesizers. If ONO’s contribution is earnest spiritual confrontation, Stacian’s is an otherworldly optimism.
Manis ultimately noted that his biggest change in the last year was, “100% dedication to making this label work for the long haul.” There’s a type of dedication that shines through the recordings of these artists, a craftsmanship that endures after the grooves run out. If Moniker was a difficult label to pin down for its previous diversity, Manis now boasts an extremely productive roster to ensure that those eclectic sounds continue into the future.