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diskant rewind: Etch-a-Sketch Yr Fear of AIDS #8

Posted: January 27th, 2009, by Dave Stockwell

(Originally posted January 2005)

Etch-a-Sketch Yr Fear of AIDS by Dave Stockwell

Records that were good in 2004

That time of year has wound around again, and everyone who’s got an opportunity to make themselves heard (and this being t’internet, that means a lot of people) has compiled inevitable endless lists of what they liked about the previous 12 months. You may have noticed that diskant towers itself plays host to such humdrum marvels – though I have to be a back-slapping sonuvabitch and say that I’ve always enjoyed reading our lists and bolshy arguments far more than yer average boring coolometer measurements on all those other boring sites…

Annnnnyway, it was when I started thinking about what candidates I would be putting forward as my nominees for the diskant team top few musical recordings of the year that it slowly dawned on me: there’s only the tiniest chance that more than a couple of my favourite records of 2004 would receive a single vote from anyone else. Why do I know this? Because I’m a fucking obscurist cuntbag. As mentioned in the last time I shat one of these incubi out I’ve developed a worrying affection for/interest in tiny CDR labels dealing in obscurer-than-thou artists and miniscule print runs (you know Davenport have got a tape coming out in an edition of 11? Bastards!). So, is this gross arrogance and patronising behaviour on the most disgusting scale? Fuck knows. But honestly, there’s no posturing here: the records I’m going to blather about are genuinely far more interesting and exciting to me than pretty much any of the ‘properly’ released records you’ll find us arguing over in our annual records round-up. As the mainstream “industry” stagnates, and independents are increasingly either swallowed up or bankrupted, why shouldn’t music released on CDR format be considered ‘valid’ or ‘proper’? I’m not directing this at you, good reader, for I am sure you are pure of heart and clear of head, but alas others are more ignorant and prejudiced, whether they realise it or not. Obviously, this argument also dates back to tape labels, but with no discernable quality difference between a ‘proper’ CD that was produced by the thousand in a pressing plant and a ‘homemade’ CDR that was burnt at home, the case for considering all this music is ever more pressing. Whatever.

“C’mon Dave,” you might want to say to me, “could you not at least talk about how great the latest Sonic Youth LP is?”

NO!” I would knock back like a cancer-ridden Bill Hicks preaching to the unconverted, “It’s a disgraceful half-asleep assortment of soft-rock songs knocked out between too many arty side-projects, and it’s the worst fucking thing they’ve done in years!”


Honestly, that’s my genuine opinion. 2004 was the year I fell out with the Youth. It’s pretty sad really. Almost made me cry.

Ahem. Anyway. Now with you suitably hushed (and no doubt wondering exactly what kind of delusion I am suffering from this year), please allow me to begin detailing precisely why I’d choose a bunch of no-budget recorded-in-a-shed lowlifes over a particularly turgid offering by a band that (admittedly after 20-odd years of being mostly incredible) sound like they’re lost the central idea about why music is such a beautiful thing to get excited about in the first places.

1. Birchville Cat Motel – Beautiful Speck Triumph (Last Visible Dog)

Of course, I have to go and undermine my own argument with my first choice for album of 2004, by acknowledging that not only is this an authentic and real life factory-manufactured compact disc, but it’s also a 2xCD monster that comes in a jewel case and everything. However: this release is apparently the first ‘proper’ CD that Birchville Cat Motel has mustered in his ridiculously long & proud history of home-produced-and-burned releases. But whatever. Let’s move on to the meat of the matter: the music.

When I called Campbell Kneale (for he be BCM) “Ur-drone Emperor”, I meant it. He’s put out dozens of records composed of über-processed drones that are created by careful layering of recordings of literally anything he can think of: guitar, piano, rattles, baby monitors, chirping crickets, creaking floorboards, cracking ice, sheets of metal… you get the picture. But Beautiful Speck Triumph is unquestionably his defining artistic statement. This album contains all the gorgeous richness of his previous work, but then multiplies the effect of his hypnotic work with two key ideas: 1 – Stretch everything out that little bit further (resulting in a 130 minute record); 2 – The belated introduction of distinct melody as wildly successful emotional flabbergasting mechanism. By the time I reach the end of either CD I am left breathless by this music. The last track on each is especially beautiful, and the final, title track is one of my favourite things ever. Plus, the sheer damn length of this epic beast means that you are forced to savour every opportunity you find to play such a towering monument of a record at the volume it deserves: as loud as humanly possible.

Oh yeah, and there’s a good possibility that this whole thing was indeed recorded in a shed at the bottom of a garden in New Zealand, whilst Kneale’s wife and children slept soundly in their beds. There’s also a fantastic review that sums up everything I wish I could find the eloquence to write about this epic, ominous, gorgeous record right here.

2. Stefano Pilia – Healing memories in present tension (Last Visible Dog)

I don’t know why it is, but I always have a thing for a record that comes out of nowhere and knocks you for six. Last year it was Loren Chasse’s album under the name of Of, which I bought on a whim and then couldn’t stop listening to for 12 months. This year it was the sublime debut release by an anonymous Italian guy purchased purely because a) I liked the way Chris Moon (LVD mainman) described it on his website, and b) it was dirt cheap. But what a fucking record. A four-track CDR that isn’t even labelled and is barely half an hour long, but blows away pretty much every “full-length” album released in 2004 for me. The most subtly ecstatic shimmering guitar drone music I’ve ever heard. Listening to this for the first time was actually like hearing an album I’ve had in my head for years, but have never actually managed to find in real life. In other words, a revelatory experience. Heavenly, sublime, succinct, absolutely inspirational. I wish I could have been in the room to see how this man generates such spine-tingling music from just a guitar or two.

3. Steven R. Smith – Antimony (Foxglove)

Another album that is the sound I’ve carried in my head for a while… Y’see, there’s this John Fahey track on his last album called ‘Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today’ which is just incredible – not surprising given who’s playing, but the use of lone distorted guitar and delay pedal was a real departure for Fahey. There was only one other track on that album which featured the same kind of thing, and I’ve always pined after more desolate solitary guitar blues played in this fashion. Lo and behold, Steve R. Smith, erstwhile member of the ever-excellent Thuja & Hala Strana comes along and delivers exactly what I was looking for. The spaces and pregnant pauses are what make this record, implying deep introversion and loneliness like nothing else. It’s what Neil Young’s soundtrack for the film Dead Man should have sounded like. This fucker was limited to something like one hundred or so CDRs in handmade sleeves with individual woodcuts and sold out in a ridiculously short time, which is a shame because more people need to hear this shit.

4. Six Organs of Admittance – For Octavio Paz (Time-Lag)

What more can I say about Ben Chasny? I think he’s just fantastic. Geoff Dolman of Static Caravan Records once told me that he considered him to be the closest thing we’ve got to Popol Vuh in this day and age. In my opinion, he’s spot on. This recording is an entirely acoustic affair, foregoing the electric screechings and yowlings that Mr Chasny has often made integral to his previous work, and therefore exuding a far more serene feeling from this set of both instrumental and sung ragas. The gentleness of this record is what I love the most – much as I enjoy the more raucous side of 6OoA (not to mention the incandescent Comets on Fire), this album is probably closest yet in spirit to the bliss-outs that Popol Vuh conjured up back in their prime, and to listen to it is a wonderfully calming experience every time I put it on. Just lovely. Aside from a ridiculously limited (but wonderfully packaged) pressing on heavy vinyl by Time-Lag, this was later reissued on CD by Holy Mountain Records.

5. William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops volumes I-IV (2062)

I didn’t think this actually came out in 2004, but Stylus Magazine and Pitchforkmedia both included it in their dull little lists of favourites of the last year, so I figured I might as well too. Gareth from Economy of Motion introduced this to me, a collection of recordings of ambient tape loops made in the early 80s actually falling apart as they are playing. I was going to say that records don’t get much more repetitive than this (especially if you take my advice and buy all four volumes), but that’s a misnomer: these recordings are doing nothing but changing; it’s just that the subtlety of the degradation is almost beyond your ability to hear it. A couple of the longer, 50 minute tracks are like the aural equivalent of watching clouds drifting on a still day: you know they’re moving and changing shape, but it’s beyond your perception. The emotional effect of this, coupled with a fantastically dust & grime-inflected sound to the tapes, is pretty devastating. Spending almost five hours listening to the whole collection is something I thoroughly recommend everybody should do at least once.

[Basinski also released a DVD entitled Disintegration Loop 1.1, which is an hour of one of the loops playing, set to footage of the World Trade Center burning. Haven’t picked that one up yet…]

6. Virgin Eye Blood Brothers – Live In The Deepest Hole In Louisville (Static Records)

A whiff from the pungent recycled cork packaging of this CD seems somehow utterly appropriate for what’s contained on the disc: a raw live recording of a one-song performance by a band I’d never heard of until I got this record. VEBB are another of the bands seemingly part of what Wire magazine would like to call ‘New Weird America’ – that is, they free improvise wild psychedelia using instruments traditionally associated with folk music, and then all sorts of disorientating metal clanging and fucked up electronics get thrown into the blender too. Aside from the sheer range of sounds this one-song performance encompasses, what I love about this record is the sheer sound of it again: this time the music sounds like it’s been borne up out of the Kentucky mud – elemental, grubby and yet somehow naturally perfect. Really amazing stuff.

7. Blithe Sons – Rooms (Chocolate Monk)

This too is the sound of two free-improvisers live in front of an audience captured onto disc. It’s also an American band released on a UK label, this time thanks to the inimitable Dylan Nyoukis. A whole further lather of releases emanated from the Jewelled Antler camp this year, but mostly on labels other than their own. This was my personal cream of the crop – Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse jamming together in a room with guitars, organs, branches, sticks and all kinds of unidentifiable textures. Blithe Sons have a reputation for only recording and playing outdoors, and their music sounds like a whole lot more benign form of nature that VEBB are also drawing from. The earthiness of the Blithe Sons is a light one, grainily textured and baked dry by the sun. Again, the rawness of the recording only aids the aesthetic: lo-fi I love you.

Oh, apparently the second, shorter track on this CD was the first thing Blithe Sons have ever done indoors. It’s still fucking awesome stuff.

8. The Unit Ama – s/t (self-released, to be reissued on Gringo in 2005)

I couldn’t find a picture of their gorgeous book-bound album, so that’s a picture of singer Steve looking distinctly raffish instead. And what’s this? An actual rock record by a by a rock band on this list! With songs with words as well as drums on them all the way through! Hard to believe after all this bizarre shit, huh? But I felt I had to mention t’Ama for two good reasons. First of all, they may well be the best live band in Britain right now. Punk rock played passionately, but also heavily deconstructed, improvised and reconstructed. ‘Art rock’ may be a term so over-used that it’s lost all meaning, but The Unit Ama to me personally embody all the potential that the two words combined suggest. Secondly, their approach is absolutely admirable: they recorded the album twice because they weren’t happy with the results of the first session, and then insisted on releasing the thing[/almost bankrupting] themselves in order to package it in a manner that (I assume) they felt was appropriate for the music contained on that shiny disc. And what a beautiful package it is. A complete pain in the arse to file, but who gives a fuck? The album doesn’t quite capture the sheer intensity of seeing this trio in the flesh, but that task may well be impossible: cherish this opportunity to have a physical representation of their music to clutch to your bosom anyway.

So, that’s it. Hope you found this collection of burble vaguely interesting and a bit of a change from the usual shit that’s doing the rounds right now. And just in case you fuckos think I’m always an insufferably snobbish prig about wilfully obscurest music, below are some actual proper records that got released and widely distributed around the world and stuff that I liked in 2004…

– Thee More Shallows – More Deep Cuts (Monotreme)
– Fennesz – Venice (Touch)
– Hot Snakes – Audit in Progress (Swami)
– Deerhoof – Milkman (5RC/Foundation)

Useful links
Last Visible Dog
Foxy Digitalis
Static Records
Chocolate Monk
The Unit Ama
Gringo Records

Dave Stockwell

David can always be relied on to end his e-mails with one of those 'np: blah blah' things in order to remind us of how much more music he listens to every day than anybody else. His interests include rockin ' out in a major style as guitarist in Souvaris, throwing frisbees from tall buildings "just to see what happens" and simply kickin' back with his bitches in a gold-plated jacuzzi.


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