Experimental & Avant-Garde Year in Review 2005

Experimental & Avant-Garde Year in Review 2005
Congotronics (Crammed)
Kinshasa, Congo's Konono # 1 hits with waves of electric thumb pianos, distorted call and response vocals, and shards of scrap metal percussion, producing an irresistible assault at every frequency range. Their trance-inducing rhythms seem like a touchstone to so much other music: progressive house, avant-rock, and Central African pop music to name but a few. The DIY angle of having constructed their own instruments and sound system, and subsequently adapting their technique to fit the sonic possibilities of their equipment is surely one that resonates with artists from King Tubby to Hans Reichel to Holy Fuck. Their open-ended, collective-driven process-oriented music is evocative of contemporary improvisers. The process of creating the album involved traditional sounds with a highly collaborative and contemporary methodology whose results turned out even greater than the sum of its parts. A conversation with Vincent Kenis, a veteran producer of African music and the director of the Congotronics series (volumes 2 and 3 will be released next year), sheds new light on an album people will be talking about for years to come.

You first heard Konono in the '70s. What's their history, and how did you come to work with them?
At their heyday, Konono #1 and many other groups who called themselves "tradi-moderne" were encouraged under a movement called "Recours A L'authenticite." The net result for these groups was they were sponsored by the [Congolese] government; of course they had to sing the praises of Mobuto [Prime Minister from 1965 to '97] in the '70s into the early '80s. But I only saw them 20 years after that. It took me three trips to Kinshasa to find them; the group were disbanded. The leader of the group heard about this and reformed the band with a younger generation, so I went back to Kinshasa and recorded them. The equipment was the same, amazingly. It was still megaphones that were put on the streets by the Belgian colonialists before [Zairian independence in] 1960 in order to diffuse official broadcasts.

Were there special challenges in capturing the sound?
I recorded in 16 tracks on my laptop, but the problem was their PA was in mono, there's nothing below 1,000 hz and nothing above 4,000. It sounds really special and terrible. So of course I wanted that sound, cause that's what attracted me in the first place. First I recorded their PA on separate tracks, then every likembe had two tracks of its own, one through the amplifier, one direct from the instrument with no amplification. So every sound on this record is a blend of the three sources. And the rest of the instruments were easy to record; percussion, congas and that's it.

What was the mixing process like? I understand you didn't shy away from plugins.
I went back to the hotel room with the laptop and I had two little monitors, and the group came back to listen. Of course, everybody was suggesting this and that. I showed them what an edit was like — we take the first part of the first take and the second part of the second take and wow! It's great! So we really collaborated. Nobody really liked the bass sound, so they said, "try to find something with your machine." [The end result] was kind of outrageous, it didn't sound at all like it sounded in reality. By myself, I would never have dared to introduce such a modification of their sounds. David Dacks

Dubious Pleasures (Rat-Drifting)
Whether taking on energy music, ethno-improv, freedom-seeking electronics or jazz "in the tradition," Rob Clutton is a distinctive and inspired player — and a hub for many of Toronto's diverse improv circles. This solo bass disc, his third release as a leader, finds him exploring subtle compositional and improvising techniques in ways that would be utterly obliterated by the presence of other instruments. The CD remains low key (hey, it is solo bass) but it's a beautiful, heartfelt statement very much in keeping with the adventurous and deeply bizarre spirit of the Rat-Drifting label. David Dacks

Electric Ascension (Atavistic)
Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension is a great white whale of a piece, a 40-minute meltdown that still terrifies and exhilarates in equal measure. The Rova sax quartet first tackled it in 1995 in a version faithful to the original 11-piece instrumentation; they've now revisited it with a plugged-in ensemble featuring Nels Cline (guitar), Fred Frith (bass), Ikue Mori (drum machine and sampler), and Otomo Yoshihide (turntables and electronics), among others, and the results are revelatory. It's more down-to-earth and less enigmatic than Coltrane's original; the smaller groupings and ear-splitting large ensembles flowing together organically where in Ascension they were starkly opposed, but the total effect is just as sonically and emotionally overwhelming. Nate Dorward

God's Money (Social Registry)
Brooklyn's Gang Gang Dance were the toast of the underground when this second full-length dropped this year and it's no wonder why. Their marriage of exotic instrumentation and electronic manipulation created a bewitching orgasm of sound atop pseudo-improvisational rhythms that would be outlawed in some traditionalist nations. Lizzi Bougatsos's otherworldly vocals may reek of freeform meaninglessness, but the way they flutter amongst the Eastern-influenced musical mosaic is so beautifully entrancing they're enough to put you in a deep, unbroken trance. Cam Lindsay

Tok (Ambiences Magnetiques)
Martin Tétreault and Otomo Yoshihide are old hands at the art of the noise and you skronk kids should pay attention. Well crafted, instinctive and with the perfect combination of nail-you-to-the-wall attack and meditative buzz, Tok is the middle and most dynamic of a three-CD set of live recordings. There's lots of space, conversation and a wide variety of texture. On top of that there's an odd feeling one gets that these two have listened to their share of pop music. And we are all better for it. Nilan Perera

Respect In You (Roister)
The 15-minute version of Fred Anderson's "3 on 2" is one of the year's great performances; it emerges slowly out of radio fuzz like the sun peeking over the horizon, then digs in hard, an ecstatic, weaving-in-and-out mass of horns swarming all over the lean funk groove. Recorded live on the band's home turf of Rochester, NY, Respect In You is a whirling collage that ransacks and reshapes the entire jazz tradition, from New Orleans march to Misha Mengelberg, Sun Ra to Charlie Parker. Forget about the wan, self-conscious eclecticism that's the bane of the current jazz scene. This is the real deal, burning hard and bright. Nate Dorward

7. LACONNOR (Drip Audio)
If you need proof of Laconnor's vision, look no further than "Interlude #2." A soundscape of delicate electronics, Jean Martin's restrained throbbing drums, Jesse Zubot's singing pastoral violin and François Houle's plaintive clarinet combine with guest Christine Duncan's exquisite vocal and haunting lyrics. From the 30 seconds of new music gestures of "Short Moment" to hypnotic apparitions "Low, So Like," to the gamelan on Mars "Orkestra for Small People," Laconnor brims over with creative music making, intriguing production values, and an adventurous zeitgeist. For improv neophytes, it would hard to find a better introduction to the world real-time artistry. Glen Hall

Recording a Tape the Colour of Light (Rough Trade)
Inside the club are propulsive rhythms with stately ceremonial horns, a driving string section, and a dextrous percussionist who can cut up a beat, slip into disco or tap on a typewriter. Outside the club is an icy ambience, with submerged pianos, broken bells and lonely brass washed upon the shore with waves of subterranean traffic. Sometimes if you leave the door open between the two worlds, they miraculously all bleed into one. If Björk and Eno raised children in the Canadian snow belt, this is the glorious music they'd create. Michael Barclay

Constantly Terrified (Troubleman Unlimited)
By drawing out and deliberating their threatening intentions on Constantly Terrified, Hair Police not only manage to further intensify a noise riot that has never been anything short of red-level intense, but push it even further out, into free-spirited realms not far off the courses of free-jazz and heavy drone. Whereas Hair Police once went for the power drill in the face for deathly blows, they would now rather plant victims firmly beneath a swinging pendulum, step back and watch them quake under duress. Kevin Hainey

10. THE DEAD TEXAN (Kranky)
Stars of the Lid have been one of the few bands of the last ten years to consistently create minimalist music that is perfectly balanced intellectually and emotionally. While SOTL have been recently silent, co-founder Adam Wiltzie has taken up the cold-flamed torch, but not alone. The Dead Texan features recognisable twilight-blurred guitar work but concentrates more on the quiet insinuation of piano into the pellicle. The album's major collaboration is with Christina Vantzos, who not only contributes vocally to several tracks, but also has helped create a companion DVD for the project. Like the music, the visuals are intuitive blends of motion and stillness, abstraction and interpretation. Sublime. Eric Hill

Destroy All Jewel Cases!
The Packaging Revolution

Nautical Almanac Double-Offset-Plexi-Lathe (Heresee)
These avant-noise OG's offer up a truly dangerous release by lathe-cutting their unpredictable chaos into a jagged chunk of Plexiglas. Each side is offset with a separate spindle hole for maximum playback variability, and those edges are fucking sharp. Now you can bleed along with the gory goodness.

Mausim …Are Watering the Horses Too Fast (HP Cycle)
The mysterious practitioners of Toronto's prestigious HP Cycle offer up a CD-R of archival guitar-drone excursions from circa 1997. Thing is, the disc comes encased within a duct-taped slipcase that's sandwiched between two pieces of wood that are intricately knotted together with twine and canvas, making this a true Pandora's Box of ahead-of-its-time dronescape.

Wolf Eyes 2005 Tour LP (no label)
Wolf Eyes have always been at the front of the pack when it comes to intense packaging, but this tour LP takes the cake: first they lathe-cut their music onto a laserdisc, then they glued the laserdisc to the blank side of a one-sided LP. This thing has to be seen to be believed. Too bad they only made about 50 copies.

2673 / The Scientific Explanation of Despair (Kitty Play)
It doesn't get much more obscure than an untitled split cassette release from two solo noise artists, in this case New Brunswick's extremely harsh 2673 and Washington's slightly less harsh the Scientific Explanation of Despair. Toss in the fact that this spray-painted tape is wrapped in chicken wire, and you've got yourself one mondo obscuro release.

Brian Ruryk Smeared Gravity and Guitars Lippin' Off (Bennifer Editions)
Toronto's foremost anti-guitar god, Brian Ruryk treats his acoustic guitar and implements of prepared percussion the way bratty kids treat their toys: by unrepentantly throwing them at walls and down stairwells. Each one-of-a-kind edition of this CD-R comes housed in a chaotically painted cardboard postage envelope, pasted shut with carpenter's glue for endless sticky business.
Kevin Hainey with Jon Shapiro