Irish power-label Trensmat has been coughing up limited-edition vinyl artifacts since 2005 but recently came off a couple-year hiatus. Stephen Gethings, one of two folks running the label, explains why a breather was needed: “We expanded pretty rapidly in 2008, 2009 … and this involved working with some large distribution in the UK and USA. Unfortunately, the reality was that we were funding the manufacture (as always) but this was then being tied up for very long periods of time before we could get any return and be in a position to fund the next releases. We went into those arrangements with our eyes open – there wasn’t any dishonesty on the part of the distributors – but there was a huge reality check in the removal of the main part of our independence. It meant we couldn’t move on with the pipeline of stuff we had and we felt disillusioned and disappointed both for ourselves and the artists we had lined up. We needed to go off, rethink how we could get back to the original idea for the label – release music in a style and format that resonates with us.”
The result of the break was a revised business model, one guaranteed to earn back its investment. “What we’ve settled on is that our mailing list and about six shops worldwide get advance notice of the releases,” Gethings says. “They can pre-order them and we only press up what has been pre-ordered from these sources. The mailing list will get instant access to a digital version (and usually some exclusive extras) of the release when they pay for the pre-order, too. We’ve done eleven releases in just over a year using this model and it’s been working well. Of course we could probably sell twice as much if we went down the ‘traditional’ route, but as I say, we’ve been there and less is better.”
I got my hands on three recent Trensmat productions, including two singles and an LP. Recognizing the Telescopes‘ name on the cover, I jumped at the Black Eyed Dog seven-inch (tr028) first. My initial exposure to the Telescopes came in the form of “Flying,” a lush dream-pop track on Creation Records’ 1991 Sorted Snorted & Sported sampler, which captures Stephen Lawrie and friends at their blissful, catchy peak. At the time, the track (which was also released as a single and music video) heralded a break from the noise-rock that characterized their early work. Lawrie explained then, “Your idea of perfection changes as you move on. I think we still hold the same approach to our music now, we still try just as many mad ideas, it’s just a lot more subtle and works to a different end.”
So, then, what to make of the Black Eyed Dog (tr028) seven-inch? The A-side, which holds the titular cover of Nick Drake‘s “Black Eyed Dog,” is indeed one such mad idea, though the jury is out on whether it’s subtle – Drake’s nuanced skittering fingerstyle is replaced by a strange loop dominated by a low-pitched, synthesized bass tone. As Lawrie sings menacingly atop, featured guest Tony Woodall torments his electric guitar to eerie ends. It’s the most ominous and abstract Nick Drake cover you’ll ever hear. Yet, while a Frankensteinian reinvention of a Nick Drake track was more than a mild shock to my ears, which had naively expected something in the Slowdive/Swervedriver tradition given the band’s history, the B-side drops off the deep end completely. “Their Lying Backs” is an arid noisescape with unintelligible spoken word buried low in the mix, while “Mind Fold” merges field recordings of general chatter amongst eighties-era industrial dissonance – almost like Whitehouse or CON-DOM rendered less abrasive. The Telescopes are no longer the band they once were, but Lawrie has etched out something indescribable and compelling with its latest incarnation.
Cheval Sombre‘s Trensmat single (tr029), meanwhile, collects a track from the band’s impending album and a cover of the Stones‘ “As Tears Go By.” The ‘band’ in question is really just Christopher Porpora, who adorns strolling, melancholy pop songs with Windsor for the Derby/Hood inspired hushed vocals – but then the thing’s produced by Spacemen 3‘s very own Sonic Boom, so there’s this interesting, insidious little psychedelic element burbling just below the surface. It can be tough to put one’s finger on, but the subtlety is integral to the charm – “Couldn’t Do,” for example, houses a trippy stretch of backmasked organ tones and Brian Jonestown Massacre-esque trebly guitar interplay, but is slowed down to a dreamy pace. It’s a tasteful break from a lot of today’s maximalist music, which often hits you over the head with its premise.
But the real main attraction amidst Trensmat’s recent happenings is Tlaotlon‘s wild Squirt Image Flex LP (tr027), whose eight tracks toy with dense, eventful soundscapes and a slew of curious beats. Since Trensmat has always drifted towards singles, I asked Gethings about how this LP came together. “Jeremy (Coubrough) sent us a number of tracks, just dropped them unsolicited in our virtual demobox on the website, and after each one we would mail him back saying how amazing they were and he kept them coming. Day after day for a couple of weeks. Eventually, when we had about 15, we just thought they were all fucking amazing and all of them HAD to be released. Six or seven 7″s didn’t really make much sense so it naturally fell into a 2 minute discussion – should we do an LP? Of course… OK!”
Take a peek at Squirt Image Flex‘s discogs entry for a sampling of the genres implicated in the craziness: “Dub, Drone, Rhythmic Noise, Techno, Acid, Experimental.” There is a lot going on here, a notion with which Gethings concurs: “It’s quite a feat to combine so many things and for it not to sound a complete mess! And this was part of the charm of it – it teeters on the edge of falling apart so often but just holds on and then transforms into something more.”
So yes, Tlaotlon’s debut LP is in many ways all over the place, which makes it a tad hard to take in. But above all the focus appears to be on rhythm – and there are some interesting ones scattered across the record. Consider the frantic pulse-beats of “Strem,” which sound something like Animal Collective‘s rhythm section with atrial fibrillation, each plock clubbing the listener over the globe. Amidst the beats, electronic chaos leaks from all angles, flooding the acoustic space from onset to finish. It’s like a pop single from another galaxy. On “Hivemind,” Coubrough dabbles in industrial-clean IDM that could almost be interpreted as a lo-fi Autechre, but then the beats get muddled in webs of polyrhythms and condense into a singular, barrel-chested pulse. This pattern, in which a rhythm seems to collapse over a bed of noise and cacophony, is repeated multiply on Squirt, as on “Flayed Vert” and the jumbled, jarring “Spitting Image.” Elsewhere, the beats give life to swirls of synthesizer and a mind-broiling electronic bass shuffle on “Spectrum Crypts” (which sounds like the name of a drone blog) and pound outward from beneath a dusty, lo-fi muddle on album-ender “Old New Roads,” which drowns succinctly in its own rich synthesizer murk. It’s a wild and original record, and something Trensmat were wise to fish out of the demo box and unleash upon the world.
In the can for Trensmat? “A Kosmiche/Italio EP from Cloudland Canyon that is absoutley killer – two tracks clocking in at nearly 25 minutes of the lushest collision of Moroder/Schulze going! After that it’s an LP from Anthony Milton full to the brim of busted amp, distortion dripping mesmerizing noise-scapes. Theres also stuff on the way from Teen, a group of four girls from New York working with Sonic Boom who are totally amazing, and White Hills.” Jeez.
Things take a turn for the manic with Love Earth Music, a long-standing noise outlet out of Ventura County, California that’s run by Steve Davis, an enthusiastic experimental veteran who communicates in a hurried, enthusiastic tone, beginning each and every email correspondence with a friendly “hi what’s up?” His website matches the rapid vibrations of his personality, serving as little more than a big, long list of releases out on the label. Whether it’s a tape by Croatoan or a split LP between Actuary and the lengendary Bastard Noise, nothing is allotted more than one line in the text discography. No descriptions, no summary pages, not even photos of the record covers.
Then, when you get a package from Davis, it inevitably comes with a xeroxed sheet listing all past and future endeavors Love Earth Music has a toe in. Without harping on the details, I can assure you this guy has a lot of crazy shit pending – including stuff by harsh noise architect Xome, eras-old tape jockey En Nihil, and hella-prolific Churner, who also runs the cantankerously productive Violent Noise Atrocities megacorp.
Eager to get my head around what little I knew about LEM, I asked Davis to sum up the history of the label. “I started Love Earth Music around 1999 as a means to release stuff from (Davis’ own sound outlet) +DOG+ and my friends’ bands as well,” he explained.” “We had been very blessed to have folks release our stuff over the years and I felt it was good karma to do the same for others, friends, and bands I love.”
Friends have been key to the LEM story. “I have had a partner working with me over the past few years, Dustin Johnston (of Actuary) and he has been so awesome and he has really helped LEM so much, and we have been able to get some great stuff out because of him, like Bastard Noise and Merzbow.” As such, many of the label’s releases feature a gaggle of noise buddies throwing their talents into the communal pot and seeing what messy sounds burble over the top. As it turned out, the first LEM tape I pulled out of the batch would exemplify this very theme.
So here’s an old cassette culture joke: What’s worse than a single-sided cassette? A double-sided cassette. Yukyukyuk. On Kepler 20-F Suite (LEM-68), mysterious outfit Blue takes us to task with a c60 of which only half is dubbed. That or I got the runt of the batch, but who’s keeping score? There’s nothing on the internet about this outfit which is itself compelling – all that you can glean from available information is that it’s a tape by “Blue,” the insert printed on blue paper … and apparently it was recorded in L.A., Kern, and Ventura counties in 2012. I’ll admit the mystery really grabbed me by the neck, compelling me to stuff it in the stereo before any of the others. Davis would later tell me that Blue is something of a supergroup of LA noise acts (+DOG+, Liver Cancer, Destroy Date, Eckankore, etc. etc.) The sounds themselves are a collage of things, with different permutations coming through each channel – do I hear a washing machine? Is that an car engine running? A shortwave radio? A nun sucking on a contact mic? … There isn’t too much in the way of harsh noise here, which is nice for a change. Instead, this is an evocative soundscape not far removed from the eighties hometaper scene, wherein one is frequently left wondering how each sound was generated. I don’t have the answers, but I like the suspense.
The band with the name so absurd it’s obvious it was snidely tossed off as a complete piss-in-the-face of the traditional rock music values of hard work, laborious auteurism, and, below all, sincerity, Endometrium Cuntplow‘s longevity and prolificness stand as elongated turds on the chest of all that makes sense in this world. It was the second tape I picked out of the box, partly because I’ve heard this guy before, and partly because, hey, who can resist the charms of the Cuntplow? On the Floods + Ruptures C30 (LEM-95), E.C. brings his trademark goods. Side A houses “Floods,” in which a refined + restrained electric rumble drones on until a noisy machine-gun-speed loop abruptly inserts itself to the blur, followed by the onset of some needly high-pitched feedback. I really dig the first half of this, though my enthusiasm wanes slightly as we get deeper in. “Ruptures,” a different beast, starts with multiple layers of siren, though not in an alarming or irritating sense. Things subtly evolve as new rhythms are realized amid the multiply overlapped sounds, while what sounds like an analog synth does a few caterwauls in the foreground.
Since way, way back in the early nineties, Love Earth Music’s Steve Davis has been purveying his own brand of noise as +DOG+, a name I have trouble stomaching (though I do love dogs tremendously). His latest, 2012′s Greetings From Moot Point, California (LEM 69), comes in a bright, almost goofy cover, and features song titles like “Uncontrolled Laughter,” “99.9% Stupid,” and “Greetings!” Not the grim-n’-grisly of your typical nihilistic, tormented noise artist. When I spoke to him recently, he told me that there was no unifying theme behind the tracks on Moot Point: “We just record and see what happens and see what we wanna call them.” This is an interesting insight, since the record itself is remarkably cohesive – within the confines of harsh noise’s array of structural, industrial sounds, Davis and his troupe engineer sprawling landscapes of deep abstract sound. In abrupt juxtaposition with the cover, its sounds are pointedly alienating, making oblique reference to the impersonal existence that surrounds us (perhaps particularly in Southern California) – but it never becomes painfully harsh. Instead, goliath grey images are conjured up but never forced headfirst into ones ears. I still don’t quite grasp the visual aesthetic here, but this is satiating stuff from long-term noisester Davis and his murder of cronies.
Why Andrew Wayne chose the name Chopstick for his sound project is a bit of a mystery to me, but his Black Hole CDR (LEM #62) is a fitting addition to Love Earth Music’s rapidly expanding stable. The record starts off with a spate of rumbling crescendos before electronic drone and noise enter the picture and cluster into multifarious permutations. I imagine the twenty-minute title track is intended to simulate the acoustic experience of floating into a black hole, complete evisceration and all, and though I’ve never drifted into one myself I’d say Wayne’s put forth an evocative effort. It’s a respectable compromise between noise’s contemptuous inaccessibility and the whoa-trippy cosmic hypnotism of much electronic music. “The Women of Peckham,” which forms the latter segment of Part A (along with the title track), is more subterranean and ominous, with a grumbling industrial noise structure paving the way for a relentless EBM beat. Part B is a tad more confrontational – whether its the full-bodied “White Dwarf” or “Dead Radar,” whose fitful electronics sound like a radar machine puttering its final fifteen maniacal minutes before pooping out entirely.
Meanwhile, The Transhumans‘ Sink CDR (LEM-60) is a different beast altogether. Whereas Chopstick’s extra-earthly vortex inhabits the domain of machines, this ruckus is clearly the work of humans. The quartet behind The Transhumans play something like noise-jazz, wherein skittered percussion (and occasionally double-bass) bedrocks a foreground of guitar and electronic feedback. It’s a successful experiment, similar in concept if not execution to John Zorn‘s Naked City project. The noise – industrial, alienating, but never particularly harsh – juxtaposes elegantly against the organic instrumentation that frames it. It comes to a glorious point on “Darkening,” an eventful and vaguely psychedelic twelve minutes led by the neurotic improvisation of a synthesized organ. Its variegated cloud of sound resembles some of the more abstract creations of the Acid Mothers Temple troupe.
But wait, there’s vinyl. Madman Dental Work (aka Jay Watson) pushes the limits with his “Fruit of Lebanon” seven-inch (LEM-77), a co-release between Love Earth Music and Watson’s own fitfully productive imprint, Placenta Recordings. This thing is covered in a neon collage that juxtaposes pieces of meat with images of youngish women – some pornographic, some not. Combined with the title, it’s pretty racy. In other words, I’m super glad customs didn’t crack open this package. Soundwise, we get frantic and variegated noise in Watson’s signature mold. “Fruit of Lebanon” is impulsive and frothy, with industrial effects-pedal noise rising and falling in multiple waves. “Fever Zone” starts with an electronic glow, above which harsh noise splays what might be the croon of a Lebanese pop diva; this exercise thrashes about ’til critical mass is achieved. It’s the better of the two tracks, owing to its boisterous, unremitting temperament. Combined with the salacious cover, this single will prove both a boon to, and a curse on, your record collection. [As a side note, Jay Watson may be manic. His thank you page on this record's insert is the size of a novella, and includes everything from artists to local restaurants he likes.]
Moving on, the Conscious Summary 45 (LEM-80) is an abrupt departure from the precedent set by the first chunk of Love Earth Music releases I chomped up. Whereas everyone else tried their best to fuck up my cochlea, this trio might actually hold some goodwill towards its listeners. Mostly. Contrary to the band’s lineage and history of noise, this single carries two sides that could even be called quaint. Granted, the start of the B-side, “Saw Is Bird,” lets go some severe rips of abrasive noise, but this is only the prelude to a pretty piece of princely pop, which lays breathy doo-doo-doo vocals, mandolin, and glockenspiel atop a staggered march beat. The A-side is even more darling, with more delectable vocals and bells – but there’s something eerie and distinctly Lynchian lurking underneath, a contemptuousness reflected in its title, “Prescription Lullaby.”
Last but not least – hot off Love Earth Music’s presses comes the Freak Hallucinations (LEM-089/O.R.-007) split between Merzbow and Actuary, this one a co-release with younger label Obfuscated Records (tagline: “Obfuscated music for obfuscated minds.”) I haven’t really been listening to too much of Masami Akita‘s recent material, so I approached this release with a keen interest in where his head’s at these days. On this charred release, he’s brought one lengthy track, “Sugamo Flower Festival,” which immerses a resilient onslaught of mangled tuneful detritus in a frothing tank of harsh noise. The result is this disturbing juxtaposition between relentless, assaultive abrasion and what sounds like the flayed relics of human culture past, present, and future. Or perhaps it’s just sounds from the Sugamo Flower Festival being chopped up like recycled tape. Either way, if you think the first five minutes are overwhelming, you’re in for a princely ear-fuckin’, because this piece doesn’t relent an ounce until its final few seconds. As a whole, it’s a potent showing from Akita, who hasn’t softened up a bit over four thousand odd releases – here, the same youthful impulse to destroy (and be destroyed) that graced his early work is rolled out to terrorize yr ears. L.A. fivepiece Actuary, meanwhile, applies their noise less liberally, instead conspiring to design creepy pseudo-industrial soundscapes (ref. the Coil/:Zoviet*France: haunted-factory sound) amidst which gusts of crushing effects pedal tyranny are planted. This leads to some phenomenal heebie-jeebies on the baleful opener, “Only Ghosts Hate New Things.” I was also entranced by the slow pile-up of “Ritual Embrace,” in which a trail of feedback twists and convulses above a mechanical low-end loop only to be attacked by a malignant, reverb-soaked vocal that seems to be clawing its way up from infernal depths. An onslaught of noise is quick to follow, but it’s thick, multifarious, and suffocating. Many folks make noise, but these folks are smart about it.
Vwyrd Wurd (Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania)
“Eclectic” is often shorthand for shitty-at-everything in music lingo, but the tides are changing. A bevy of all-over-the-place records and labels have been passing thru my mailbox as of late, and nouveau obscuro label Vwyrd Wurd brings the vwacky goods on two bewitchingly designed LPs. The label documents the fledgling weird scene in northeastern Pennsylvania (think Kutztown, Southampton, etc.), something I asked label head Earl Kunkel to describe to me. It turns out the area is a pretty complex tale of geography and sound: “It is weird. Northeast Pennsylvania has a definite punk and metal presence. The Lehigh Valley has its noise and Square of Opposition Records within Bethlehem (a colourful punk vinyl label – MT). Northampton seems to always be doing some form of doom/stoner metal. Now farther north, into the Poconos, you run into a hardcore/metalcore scene, but that is juxtaposed to the folk-punk of the Hazleton area: banjos and mandolins rocking with acoustic guitars about living off popcorn for breakfast and drinking beer on the weekend.” Who knew?
But Vwyrd Wurd’s associates seem to fit in best with northeast PA’s jam band scene, which is great news for those into body hair and B.O. “I think it has to do with the fact that the jam band scene in this area is the most open to the unfamiliar. The sound/music is odder than the norm and catches the jam/kraut band scene’s ear much more regularly. They are used to listening to music without lyrics, as well,” he laughs. Still, the bulk of their dealings appear to occur online, through their website – a mid-90s HTML creation overrun with low-res neon Photoshop abuse and misused punctuation. The internet has helped them chip away an army of converts in addition to their local supporters: “Albums have been selling and the Bandcamp site is receiving plays daily … As far as reaching an audience– internet, playing live and good old word of mouth at a grassroots level seem to be working.” But resilience is key. “To me, finishing is just not stopping,” Kunkel reflects.
So I played the Nocht the Only Ghouls LP’s entire side A on 33rpm before noticing the 45rpm notice on the central label, which should give you a sense of how alien my listening habits have become lately. This isn’t even the sort of low-end noise record that would lend itself to being slowed down. Once re-calibrated, however, the record revealed itself as an unpredictable collage of American Primitive guitar picking floating in reverb and tape fuzz. The album’s complexion is solemn and sparse – many tracks sound as though they’ve been recorded from the other end of a great big marble hall, perhaps part of a cathedral. Kunkel explains the methodology: “Everything was constructed as a sound texture to distract the listener from the fact that they were listening to an acoustic guitar album in an electronic age, thus the ample use of noise. Being that it is an acoustic guitar album, without words, ambience was paramount to creating the spooky texture of nightmare dream-awakenings.” While it might, at first, seem like a relatively simple formula, at least with regards to the repeated guitar phrases, the devil is in the details. The texture in the background will change (on “Půlnoci (Nacht of the Bär-geist)” – is that an In-Sink-Erator?), or tape effects will be thrown into the muddle (“Preyed Upon Dream”), or subtle synths will fill in the negative space. Every so often they shift the schema entirely, reverting to back-masked sounds (“The Bhuta Jokshan”) or some other such tasty nonsense, but for the most part the spare, ethereal sensibility is generally retained. Oddly enough they resist to urge to devolve into effects pedal/tape muckiness until the final stanza, impudently titled “The Prelude.” Oh, Nocht the Only Ghouls, never change!
The other LP Vwyrd Wurd has put out, Daywand‘s Temporary Sanctuary (yes, I was compelled to play “Temporary Secretary” before slipping this one on the turntable), is the sky-born epitome of eclectic, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Here’s a record that scrolls from solemn piano notes to heady weird instrumental rock to burbling guitars and synths undercut by a hip-hop beat within the first two inches of side A. There is a LOT to digest on this. They hit on a lot of trendy weird-scene sounds (90s cable TV crime-drama synths ala Umberto, frigid post-punk drum-machine snares, tapes being wound up and down like scratched records … and that’s all in one track) but do so in an eventful and compelling way, often globbing these elements up and spreading them across post-rock landscapes (think lo-fi Tortoise if you’re keen on a reference point). The standard smattering of kraut-rock influences and drone textures are thrown into the mix, as well, but assimilated in novel and unpredictable ways. After a busy and impulsive A-side, the B-side stretches out the song durations, allowing the music (and listener) room to breathe. It’s when the sounds are permitted to space themselves out that the record’s epochal moment is realized – as the superb title tracks locks into a wonderful, almost Mogwai-esque groove propelled by an invigoratingly rumbling bass part.
Quoth Kunkel, breathlessly: “We listen to music constantly. Our tastes are eclectic; our listening is all over the place. Groups form one week, disform themselves the next, reinvent or mold into a larger collective the following, break down and the cycle continues in some hybrid, but the whole time the same scene of musicians continue to feed off one another’s creativity, making tunes, drawing art or writing a story, and occasionally-often branching out with other performers.” So basically, like both Trensmat and Love Earth Music, VW is founded on doing what feels right when it feels right: the perpetual reshuffling and repositioning of one’s bearings. And given their youth, in label terms, there’s this exciting air of ambition unadulterated by cynicism or rules. Just take a peek at what they have in store for the future: Next up is some vinyl from James Pearson‘s BoundbySound project (“acid house/noise inspired music”).Then, VW envisages “a string of cassette releases in extremely limited quantities” by various associates – including “a grunge meets drone/doom project,” as well as something by “psychedelic-disco band” Stetson Kush and some solo chaos from “weirdo-hip-hopper” Juan Labull.
One last word to hammer it home. While “Vwyrd Wurd” is the official way to spell the label’s name, if you examine the spines and vinyl labels of each release you’ll encounter several variations: Vwyrd Word, Vwyrd Wird… Kunkel says it’s “a constant reminder to change and keep it fresh and new,” while allowing that “having a solid jumping off point doesn’t hurt.” In the case of all three labels discussed today, that’s exactly it: each label allows a curator (be it Gethings, Davis, or Kunkel) the opportunity to send strange shit out into the world and see what sticks.
But I don’t need to get all philosophical about this shit. As Kunkel simplifies: “I knew the music being made was weird–why not the spelling?”
Comments, questions, and “I want you to write about my records”: fenfluramine [at] gmail [dot] com