I may someday finish hyperlinking all the bands & albums listed here, but it's gonna take a while.
Plenty to argue with in this article, no doubt. Have fun!
I’ve always been sensitive to ambient sound, and several friends have noted how easily aggravated I am by sirens, barking dogs and the like. Something about the "brute stupidity" of the source really gets to me- aggressive, unalterable repetition for the sake of repetition. I find I need to program my own sounds almost constantly. Not so much to drown out all else, but to feel like “my space” is truly mine- that I can choose my environment to some degree. I know many others who feel the same way.
There was an older guy that used to live in the apartment above where I work. I understood that he was a Veteran of some sort, had PTSD issues & a history of addiction and alcoholism that he'd been struggling with a long time. He’d been clean & sober for a decade or so. He was serious, soft-spoken, and made a point of helping out the permanent homeless characters in the neighborhood however he could. He did yoga daily out on his porch balcony, and often burned lots of sage in his apt. He also got really anxious about punk shows I hosted at the meeting hall across the street, and would complain a lot about disruption and drinking in the parking lot. Frustrating as that was, I felt like I could understand where he was coming from, and tried to interact respectfully with him.
His worst trait though, was BLASTING the most generic "60's music" from his stereo EVERY SINGLE DAY. He had a really limited repetoire too; almost comically so- I think he actually had the KTel "Freedom Rock" compilation, a few Beatles & Dylan & Joni Mitchell albums, and not much else. I went through endless cycles of amusement, annoyance, sarcastic commentary, stupefaction, violent fantasies and back again as he continued to broadcast this hit parade of nostalgic schmaltz throughout the neighborhood. It was obviously an important ritual, possibly even necessary for keeping him on an even keel. I think it was his way of maintaining equilibrium in the face of personal demons and external attacks. But goddamn, there are certain "classics" I'll never be able to hear again without feeling intense disgust, thanks to him. It reminds me of the almost murderous rage I get when I hear most Christmas music. One person’s comfort music is definitely another's psychic assault, and environmental factors often play a big part in the difference. However, the urge to use sound and repetition to protect one’s psychic integrity is universal. Sometimes this urge surfaces unconsciously. I sent my artist friend Jason a draft of this essay, and he wrote back:
"Yesterday, I needed to go to Walmart to get our supplies (for upcoming relatives in town--Ursula has a ballet recital (!!!)). The second I turned into the parking lot, the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Let's Lynch the Landlord’ popped into my head and would not let go for the entire time I was there. Now, Walmart is never a fun place to have to go, but at a certain economic bracket in Las Cruces it seems almost inevitable. My brain took over."
Music is one of the best & simplest tools I know of to undermine negative environments. It’s highly personalized, has a repetitious nature that can break up imposed patterns, and is more readily available than most other media. I’ve found what works best for me are usually recordings that I've listened to for many years, and pretty much know by heart. Stuff that doesn't let my mind wander to topics of pain and self-hatred, but keeps me centered on how great this music is and how great I feel hearing it. Currently, a lot of what I listen to on a daily basis is pretty “far out” - free jazz, noise, electroacoustic stuff. It opens my mind up to new worlds of feeling and understanding. But when I need to bring it all back home, I usually stick with what’s always worked. Instead of a Top Ten list, here’s “The Odd Recommendation” of recordings I use to keep myself even.
ANCHORED TO THE EARTH
*Dead Moon- Hardwired in Ljubljana
This was recorded live in the capitol of Slovenia, as the legendary Portland, OR band has always enjoyed a larger following in Europe than the States. Live is definitely the best introduction to Dead Moon. The studio albums can sometimes sound a bit dry, but I’ve only met one person who’s seen them live that didn’t come away a rabid fan. They have an utterly grounded, magical simplicity that translates well on this recording. Dead Moon’s aesthetic is consistently stark- mostly black’n’white artwork, bare-bones songwriting, mournful in tone even when raging, and proudly recorded in mono instead of stereo. Despite the lack of flash, or perhaps due to it, they create heart-rending music brimming with anger, sorrow, soul and lumpenproletarian intractability. This is the essence of garage punk- real Survivor Rock which expresses something irretrievably lost or broken with no illusions, but tapping a strength that refuses complete despair. I could rant on about each of the 20 songs on this album, but suffice to say that they’re all solid as granite, even the quiet ones. "Milk Cow Blues" is an absolutely scorching blues traditional, and their version of "Play with Fire" makes the Stones look like the ones doing the cover.
Favorite lyric: "I’m pissedoffpissedoffpissedoff, it’s just the way I am!" –"Poor Born "
Also considered: The Stooges- Funhouse, The Monks- Black Monk Time
Also recommended: Black Sabbath, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Exuma, Kevin Coyne, Birthday Party, most Scott "Wino" Weinrich projects (The Obsessed to Hidden Hand), Pagan Altar, Lozen (Sttle.), Pierced Arrows (post-Dead Moon band), select 60’s garage rock, select Southern rock & 70’s protometal
MY OWN PRIVATE FREAKSCENE
*The Iowa Beef Experience- Snack Pack cassette
Nothing creates a psychic bond with music like having a personal connection to it. You’ve caught the buzz and seen the band with your friends at the local dive bar. You’ve heard the thirdhand gossip about their scandals and internal dramas. You’ve built up a mythology around their songs, somehow connected to your own life. You’ve been to parties and done drugs with them. This is YOUR band, from YOUR town. You’ve been housemates with them, helped them cop codeine syrup when they’d used the same scrip too many times, gotten evicted together…okay, it’s certainly not necessary to get that involved, but you get the idea. Whatever your own stories are, the identification with that music lasts for life. Most of these tracks were released on Personalien later, and probably better recorded, but this cassette was what I imprinted on first. (Quick, what’s your favorite album by x band? Was it the first one you heard by them? Thought so.) IBEX’s trademark is primarily Chris Rinehart’s grinding guitar work; heavy & lurching, yet somehow psychedelic. The addition of Ethan Richeson to this lineup brought in watery, deep gravelly vocals punctuated by the occasional muffled howl; like a haunted, abandoned rural quarry used for trippin’ & skinny-dippin’. The lyrics are snarling & sarcastic as always, but now with a penchant for actually thought-provoking punk slogans. And blatant regionalism is always a plus for me with any band (witness "Dope Smoking Redneck from Cedar Rapids Trapped in an Alternate Reality").
Favorite lyric: "many ways to get things done / repetition- your ways are insipid / your straight line is already crooked / I’m not part of your lawful union" –title long lost
Also recommended: Thee Duma (Iowa City, IA), Fukrot/Roñoso (Alb., NM), Bar-B-Q Killers/Jack-O-Nuts (Athens, GA), Croatan (Cincinnati, OH), the original Pocket FishRMen, Gorch Fock (both Austin, TX), The Gits (Sttle., WA), RWake (Little Rock, AK), Stinking Lizaveta (Philly, PA), all those other band names you’re shouting out loud as you read this.
NOT ALONE, IN THE INTERZONE
*Chrome- Alien Soundtracks/Half Machine Lip Moves
These two albums are permanently fused in my brain due to lots of tripping and hearing them both repeatedly at numerous parties. It’s still a big party favorite due to all the riff wanking throughout, earning Chrome the appellation "armpit rock" by buddies of mine. Helios Creed & Damon Edge hit on the perfect chemistry for these and a few other albums, neither really achieving as much on their own. Here, they're sneering, streetwise droogs playing tour guide to a sinister urban dystopia of sci-fi thrills. Philip K. Dick and Wm. S. Burroughs imagery abounds, and they even seem to have used the cutup method in arranging the material. The vocals are mostly buried beneath layers of noise & tape-spliced samples, only occasionally recognizable as lyrics. It’s definitely more about the delivery than the content of the words themselves. The ones that do come through are usually repeated phrases, hints at the compulsive obsessions of the inhabitants of this alternate universe. Despite all the jump cut chaos, this music ultimately gives assurance that one can survive & thrive throughout the most disorienting psychic & societal shifts.
Favorite lyric: “A cold, clammy bombing (x3) / will shit on your town” –"March of the Chrome Police"
Also considered: Killing Joke - self titled
Also recommended: Faust, most bands on the Ralph Records label (esp. Snakefinger & Renaldo & the Loaf), Warsaw, Stiff Legged Sheep (Iowa City, IA), Men’s Recovery Project, Six Finger Satellite, Caroliner Rainbow/Rubber O Cement, Nervous Gender/The Screamers, Geza X & the Mommymen, select Postpunk/No Wave
WE ARE HERE TO GO
*Thrones- Sperm Whale/White Rabbit CD
Thrones is the solo project of rock bassist Joe Preston, who previously played in drone outfit Earth; also with The Melvins & numerous bands since. Drone has always been a huge part of Preston’s sound. But for as much as his music is based in gratifying low end rumble, there’s something really transcendent about it as well. It may simply be the church organ sounds and the celestial, angelic vocal effects he uses at times. However he does it, Preston achieves a really powerful balance of “grounded” and mind-expanding sound. This goes way beyond the often-dopey Stoner Rock genre. Perhaps Cosmic Metal is more apt- a blend of Julian Cope’s vaunted "krautrock" with the stern, unforgiving menace of heavy metal. This psychedelic ethos leans more toward a Lovecraftian view of the universe than just toadstools & floppy-hat wizards. Add in the glitchy electronics of Thrones’ one-man-band setup, and you’ve got a Cape Canaveral of the mind, a control center & launchpad for inner/outer space exploration. Or a secret base for pirate broadcasts jamming Alaskan HAARP transmissions, followed by 34 minutes of chirping crickets after the Cryptocalypse.
Also recommended: early Head of David, Hungary’s Vágtázó Halottkémek aka Galloping Coroners, Yob, Old (& almost anything involving James Plotkin), The USAisaMonster, Lightning Bolt, Yeti, old Kylesa (esp. live), Tarantula Hawk, Fando (Alb., NM), Gnossurrus (Santa Fe, NM), select Japanese heavy psych
THE VIRTUES OF POSITIVE NEGATIVITY…
*Slayer- Reign in Blood
At less than 30 minutes total length, this might seem like a ripoff until you realize what a perfectly formed slab of primal aggression it is. This is THE record to throw on when it’s FTW time without distinction. You can blot out everything with the completely unhinged rage on this disc- just put it on endless repeat until you’re good again. Kerry King is one of the original postmodern rock guitarists from the 80’s, right alongside Greg Ginn & Thurston Moore in creating disturbing, “unmusical” sounds that don’t follow standard song progressions. And the braindamaged lyrics are irrelevant when not hilarious.
Also recommended: Bad Brains- Rock for Light, Corrosion of Conformity- Animosity, Meat Puppets' first, Nomeansno- Wrong, Cro-Mags- Age of Quarrel, Old Grandad- The Last Upper, Karp/The Whip, Old Man (Alb., NM)
...AND THE DANGERS OF NEGATIVE FASCINATION
*Big Black- Atomizer
When I was in college, I had the entire rant that accompanied "Jordan, Minnesota" from this LP memorized. I once etched it in pen onto a note-taking board in a lecture class over the course of several days. I don’t really know why, or where my head was at when I did it. I do know that this ugly, caustic album loudly affirmed truths about human evil that absolutely should not be ignored. This comes from the “Fuck you, LOOK AT this shit!!” school of agitpunk, which also has the danger of romanticizing and encouraging self-abusive behavior. Handle with care.
Favorite lyric: “Been so long / Who brought me to this? / Been so long / Forgot what it's like / Like fighting, like sex, like kicking a bang (?) / Think it's time, got stinking drunk / Think it's time / You sure?!” –"Stinking Drunk"
Also considered: Black Flag- Damaged
Also suggested: Fear, The Jesus Lizard, early Cows, Pussy Galore, early Swans, Man is the Bastard, Buzzov*en and related sludge metal, Oingo Boingo, Khanate, Brainbombs, early Celtic Frost and select Black Metal, select Industrial music
THE REAL COSMIC SLOP…
*James Ferraro- 90210
James Ferraro is one half of The Skaters, So. California’s latest claim to being the US capitol of psychonaut pioneers. Ferraro & James Spencer operate together, solo & with others under a variety of obscurant monikers, with an output both extremely rare & prolific. They use a musical template of lo-fi, murky analog rock/drone seemingly inspired by (early Velvets drummer) Angus Maclise’s The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda anthology. That, or else some really high kids making haunted house music. Either way, these folks are very consciously trying to create fourth-dimensional, psychic media. Ferraro’s Marble Surf simply erases time whenever I listen to it. But 90210 is my favorite of his recordings (that I’ve heard), probably because of the familiar rock modalities floating in his primordial sound soup. I still like my extrasensory, interdimensional experiences to be somewhat recognizable. When things get too formless and void, I get easily befuddled.
Also recommended: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, Holger Czukay- Canaxis, Royal Trux- Twin Infinitives, Spirit Bears, Mouthus, Fennesz, The Skaters et al, Yoda’s House, William Fowler Collins (both Alb., NM), Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley and other minimalist forebears, Sun Araw and most stuff on the Not Not Fun label, Ducktails, Mudboybeats, select trance and drone.
…THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
*Yellow Swans- Bring the Neon War Home
I have an occasional friend, an electronic psytrance activist named Bedouin. Despite the digital sterility of the music he promotes, the missionary zeal with which he does so is really inspiring. He can make organizing a music event seem as crucial as a direct hit on the Death Star. Long ago, he loaned me an article from the Bay Area Guardian about the burgeoning U.S. noise scene that mentioned Yellow Swans, the Space is No Place- NYC: Noise from the Underground compilation and others in an interview with Karl Bauer of Axolotl. I was fascinated- psychoactive electronic music influenced by both punk and free jazz, intended to activate higher functions of the brain? I spent years searching for this material, and was ecstatic to finally discover some of it, this album being one of the first. Neon War starts off with some bass thumping, just enough to hook you, as the rest of it veers into churning, skittering chaos. Beats burble in and out through the album and melodies establish themselves for short periods against amorphous, spark-lit clouds of sound. Thankfully missing here is the base chakra pounding of most club music, as well as the fascist fascination and leering lechery of so much industrial/ techno material. Having since set up shows locally for Yellow Swans and similar groups, I’ve started to feel like I’m on a mission in promoting this underground, liberating noise. Each time I pull off a show, it feels like another small victory for the rebels.
“How do you convert your harmonic progressions to energy? Come on! Just tell us!” -FBI agents interrogating Sun Ra in the film Space is the Place.
Also recommended: Skullflower/Sunroof! (and pretty much all Matt Bower projects), Sun Ra & the Arkestra, Borbetomagus, Perrey & Kingsley- The In Sound from Way Out!, Sphexus (Iowa City, IA)- To Blind the I That C’s Us cassette, Black Dice- Creature Comforts, Axolotl, Bone Tar/Apothecary Blue (Alb., NM), Black Guys (Alb., NM), Racoo-oo-oon, Rahdunes, Burning Star Core, Birchville Cat Motel, WZT Hearts, select “IDM”/glitchy electronica
MYSTICAL SUPPORT NETWORK
*Nina Hagen- Nunsexmonkrock
This album starts off with a description of possession from the Bible, and it’s certainly appropriate- Hagen here sounds like she actually is possessed, or genuinely channeling something. She alternates between multiple voices and languages, makes numerous references to disparate religious and spiritual traditions as well as concepts in quantum physics (“Antiworld”), and at times seems to be prophesying political events (“Born in Xixax” among others). The subject of "Dr. Art" also seems eerily similar to the male muse named Art that Joni Mitchell claimed to consort and roam the woods naked with in a much-quoted Life magazine interview. If Nina really did hook up with the same incarnate spiritual being, he seems to have abandoned her after this album, as none before or since contain the epiphanic wildness and densely packed concepts as Nunsexmonkrock. Throughout, she seems to be in the process of navigating a manic episode or “nervous breakdown”, en route to a healing crisis of personal transformation. And that is one of the most inspiring things to witness, ever. Hagen also belongs to my (probably ill-formed) notion of a European/Teutonic female avant-vocal tradition that includes Dagmar Krause (Art Bears, Slapp Happy, Henry Cow), Iva Bittová, Dog Faced Hermans’ Marion Coutts, Björk (esp. with KUKL), and Guro Skumsnes Moe of Moe.
Favorite lyrics: “My love for you was bigger than my love for me, cheri you see / Now I am free, I found the key, and I love everybody /...just gonna free everybody” –"Future is Now"
Also considered: The Boredoms- Soul Discharge, Daniel A.I.U. (Arcus Incus Ululat) Higgs, Interdimensional Song-seamstress- Ancestral Songs
Also recommended: early Butthole Surfers (pre-Widowermaker!), Capt. Beefheart & The Magic Band- Trout Mask Replica, early Mothers of Invention, 13th Floor Elevators/Roky Erickson, Rudimentary Peni- Cacophony, Northern Liberties (Phila., PA), Hella- Church Gone Wild, any Arrington de Dionyso projects, all Daniel Higgs projects including The Pupils & Lungfish
*Sun City Girls- Torch of the Mystics
Interacting with an unfamiliar culture can sometimes be an experience fraught with miscommunication, guilt and recrimination, at least for me. Music is inevitably one of the best ways to ease that process of engaging the unknown. And when cultural interactions produce their own forms of expression, it’s awesome. This album was my first experience with any sort of musical crosspollination. The Bros. Bishop & Gocher have obviously spent a lot of time studying non-western styles, and approach the material in a really playful way. Much like 60’s folk revivalists The Fugs & Holy Modal Rounders, they refuse to cop the self-conscious reverence that informs so much similar work. Instead, they’re smartass trickster punks with no tolerance for white liberal fantasies about "World Music". Throughout most of the album, it sounds like they’re singing in made-up foreign languages, or perhaps phonetically. “Space Prophet Dogon” contains the same absolutely joyous emotional punch as the version of “Muleskinner Blues” that I have a copy of, allegedly sung by a 90-yr. old Japanese man that spoke no English. Several tracks seem inspired by W. Saharan guitar music, “Radar 1941” is a middle eastern spy noir/surf rock hybrid and “The Shining Path” sounds like a spaghetti western set in the Andes. When worlds of sound collide, the asteroid forms that emerge are often stunning.
Favorite lyrics: “thought it was easy / I know you’re last / the flower has you now / you will come and grow / pure from fresh water / shrivelled up when dry / explode into the sky.” –"Flower"
Also recommended: Savage Republic- Tragic Figures & Live Trek, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Yat-Kha- Re-covers, most stuff on the Sublime Frequencies label (esp. Group Doueh, Omar Souleyman, Radio Algeria, Cambodian Cassette Archives & Thai Pop Spectacular) Neung Phak/Mono Pause, Secret Chiefs 3, Siamese Temple Ball aka 70’s Thai Orchestra, John Zorn’s Electric Masada & Book of Angels works, select surf rock, select Ethiopiques compilations, select Rai & Punjabi dancehall music, select Tijuana Nortec music compilations)
I WAS A TEENAGE ERASERHEAD
*Sonic Youth- Evol
This is THAT album for me, the one everyone has that "saved my life in high school!" By my senior year, I’d developed a persona of Anarchist Rabblerouser, which subsumed a lot of my teenage angst. Before that I was just an alienated weirdo, usually carrying a brooding black cloud and tunnel vision down the hallways with me. Sonic Youth provided my first experience with music outside “the finite worlds of punk, heavy metal, and classic rock,” as Sun City Girls’ Sir Richard Bishop aptly put it. As music, it didn’t “make sense” to me, but painted an emotional landscape that I resonated with, and continued to return to. Here, aggressive, ominous atonality is the soundtrack to miscommunication and wrenching trauma, described with dispassionate, poetic derangement. It affirmed feelings I was incapable of articulating at the time, and to some extent still am- fugue states, undefined loathing, gender frustration, and an almost autistic inability to connect with others. I recall lying in between folded up bleachers in the empty gymnasium with Evol on my walkman and managing to feel comfortably disconnected, having finally achieved sanctuary.
Favorite lyric: “There’s a thing in my memory / holding on for dear life / with a feeling of secrets / beating up under my flesh / my tongue is tied / I’m sleeping nights awake / Tom Violence is a dream / coming out of a girl” -"Tom Violence"
Also recommendeded: John Trubee & the Ugly Janitors of America- Naked Teenage Girls in Outer Space, Zoogz Rift, Live Skull- Dusted, Saccharine Trust- Surviving You Always, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents, Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, Daniel Johnston, Syd Barrett, Jandek, Skip Spence- Oar, Gary Wilson, Cerberus Shoal, ONO
PRIMITIVE COMFORT MUSIC
*The Sons of the Pioneers- Cool Water
I’ve been told that my mom would hum the Campbell’s soup jingle to quiet me down in church as an infant. However, this is my first memory of positive associations with music- a collection of classic western vocal songs about cowboys & The West set to orchestral acccompaniment. It was most likely the oldest album my dad owned, definitely from his pre-Born Again days. There’s a lot of supernatural elements in these songs (“Cool Water”, “Riders in the Sky”), and even the upbeat ones are haunting, sometimes downright spooky. High Lonesome is the theme throughout, and what solitude does to one’s mind. There’s an anthropomorphic, almost animistic strain in a lot of the songs, as the mournful singers address the cattle, ghosts, the environment itself, and attempt to communicate with boots & old saddles. Longing and yearning feelings are repeated consistently- powerful stuff for a young boy. Despite what may seem from the previous listings, I’m not fond of sentimentality & nostalgia. Primitive Comfort music can often fall into those categories- it’s a very personal thing, sometimes embarrassing. The effect is womblike, rather than embattled; almost the polar opposite of Slayer’s aforementioned “positive negativity”. It makes me think of when one picks up a cat or dog by the scruff and they go limp, remembering being carried that way in their mother’s mouth. I often use this album to fall asleep to now.
Favorite lyric “See them tumbling down / pledging their love to the ground / lonely but free I’ll be found / drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds” –"Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds"
Also personally useful: 2nd Chapter of Acts- *with footnotes, Daniel Amos- Vox Humana, My Bloody Valentine- Loveless, Twin Peaks soundtrack, Can- Ege Bamyasi, Guided by Voices- Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Low, early Cat Power, Godspeed You Black Emperor!- f#a#∞, John Fahey and modern fellow travelers, select funk & soul music
I hope you find this info of some use. - Caterwaul