Tuesday, December 15, 2009

THE AVANT-GARDE BED TEST

For most of the last week I've been afflicted with SWINE FLU - a terrible state of affairs, especially when I woke up with shit all over my trotters. No, it was probably normal flu. Or something. Anyway, between way-too-late vitamin C overdoses and snotting up yellow stuff, I decided to use this temporary malady to conduct an experiment, in order to crack an occult secret that's taxed even the most dedicated Wire hacks for decades - which avant garde / experimental / drone album IS THE BEST TO FALL ASLEEP TO?

The rules were simple - I would doze off while listening to the album on my iPod, at fairly low volume, in conditions of total darkness. I can now reveal the results below:

1) NURSE WITH WOUND - "SOLILOQUY FOR LILITH"

After taking too much acid in the 1980s, Steven Stapleton went mad, married a dominatrix and moved to Ireland to run a sanctuary for autistic goats. One day, according to legend, he popped out for a loaf of soda bread, leaving his din-making equipment plugged in. When he returned, 8 hours later ((you're fucked without a car on the West coast of Ireland)), he was blown away by the sound of his synthesizers relaying random drones to each other - all without him having to flick a switch. Technically, then, all he contributed to this album was hitting the RECORD button - his machines should get the credit for this album, not him. The plank.

RESULTS - I found this sinisterly soothing, like descending in a submarine to an exhibition of ancient Egyptian scarves, held in a decomissioned sea-bed bunker-cum-museum, with giant three-eyed squids and pirates' skulls floating around in the inky, murky depths. But I couldn't get to sleep. For some reason, the left earphone was really irritating me whenever I turned onto my left side. RATING = 0/10

2) THROBBING GRISTLE - "HEATHEN EARTH"

This 1980 LP was originally billed as Music for dream machines on its release, so I thought it'd be fit for purpose. Incidentally, not many people know this, but I spent a month on Job Club back in the '90s, and I was temporarily attracted by the idea of taking advantage of an Enterprise Allowance grant to set up my own 'dream machine' manufacturing empire. Just find an old turntable, get an art student to cut holes out of a cardboard tube, glue the tube on, add a 60W lightbulb, and - HOCUS POCUS! You've now got a dream machine to punt for £550. "SEE THE OMPHALOS OF THE COSMOS WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR SOFA... 24-HOUR DELIVERIES AVAILABLE, GREATER LONDON AREA." But the EA weren't keen to lend me a bean. Actually, they didn't hear my proposal cos they probably didn't exist anymore in 1997, and I started temping instead.

RESULTS - bloody hell, there's a big cornets'n'fuzz guitar workout for the first 10 minutes, hardly conducive to a snooze. But I stuck with it, and - sure enough! - just after this bit where Genesis P-Orridge makes a melodramatic statement about TG being a "military campaign" instead of "art" (CHIN RECK), I dozed off! I woke up, coughing, right at the end of the disc, with the pre-recorded tape of a hypnotist urging the listener to relax - very annoying. By the way, this is my least favourite TG album. RATING = 4.5/10

3) BERNARD PARMEGIANI - "DA NATURA SONORUM"

Parmegiani's is a name that seems to inspire awe and respect in serious discussions of electronic music. In fact, you're not allowed to slag him off, full stop. Loved by the bow tie-sporting classicist who runs the music archives of the British Library and the woolly-hatted Rephlex fanatic alike - Parmegiani is a man who transcends the base tendencies of inferior, catty weblogs to make asinine comments about his now legendary archive of electro and electro-acoustic sonic noodlings.

RESULTS - this sounded like an incompetent burglar breaking into a laboratory and knocking test tubes, petridishes and expensive scientific equipment to the floor, before tripping arse over tit, reaching for the nearest object to break his fall, and inadvertently dragging his fingernails down a blackboard. I suffered about 15 mins before aborting the experiment. RATING = 0/10

4) PYTHAGORON, INC - "PYTHAGORON"

Allegedly, this 1977 obscurity was devised as "electronic music for healing". The mysterious, US-based Pythagoron, Inc claimed to have perfected a method of formulating hypnotic electronic rhythms to play off the listener's natural brain waves, thereby literally re-aligning his/her cerebral cortex. All you do is pop out the lights, lie down in a comfortable position, and let the pulses work their magic. Well, that was New Age California for you. I don't know if Pythagoron, Inc really was some sub-Scientologist clique of LSD-crippled weird-beards in kaftans, operating from a pyramid-shaped compound, and practising their vile mindfucks on the kind of deeply depressed suburban moms who had copies of Chakras for Beginners stashed behind the couch. Or maybe it was just a couple of blokes on the US equivalent of an Enterprise Allowance scheme. But, piss on a bat's nest - "electronic music for healing"? I was game, to see whether or not it plunged me into a 12-hour slumber and expunged my foul germs in time for breakfast.

RESULTS - psychic defence alert!! It was like that bit in the film The Sorcerers, when Boris Karloff and his mental wife gatecrash the kid's brain, with all the whirrs, bleeps and flashing lights. The rhythm was too lively, and, 20 mins in, "Pythagoron" became offensively boring. It was a horrible experience. It really felt like some disgusting joss-stick jiggler was trying to paw his way into my consciouness. No wonder all that Jonestown crap happened with records like this doing the rounds. RATING= 0/10

5) SALLY SMMIT AND HER MUSICIANS - "HANGAHAR soundtrack"

This was the soundtrack to a film that didn't exist, cooked up by Sally Timms of The Mekons ((and poorly disguised pseudonyms)) fame, and Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks - a man capable of turning even a Euromillions jackpot win into a catchy 3-minute whinge about how shit his life is. This time round, though, he keeps it zipped and the result is an excellent, almost Yoko Ono-ish, long piece of dreamy, occasionally moving, jangle-drone.

RESULTS - it worked! Took a while, but I did nod off, and had a satisfyingly fucked up dream about being trapped in an elevator, with a screaming elevator repair man clinging onto the bottom, on the outside, for dear life. Then that I was having a mug of coffee in Britney Spears' kitchen, at the top of a tower block in Kings X, and some girl from my previous job walked in with her parents, who were wearing handkerchiefs round their faces. RATING = 7/10

6) COIL - "TIME MACHINES"

"Time Machines" was a sort of concept album about psychedelic drugs, comprising four long pieces of dark ambient drone. I like this album, so I was looking forward to this experiment, even if it ended up doing weird things to my head. See what I mean? I'd happily catch the Night Boat with Charon and cross into the Underworld to place my mental welfare in John Balance's boney hands - whereas I wouldn't trust Pythagoron, Inc with a casual daydream.

RESULTS - I think the problem is I like "Time Machines" too much, so it didn't have the desired effect at all. I was convinced this entry was going to win the entire challenge, and that "Soliloquy for Lilith" would come second - both albums spiralling me into good old-fashioned, honest, decent SLEEP -with plenty of nutso flu dreams to boot. But I actually found myself becoming more awake and alert, and ruminating on life's many mysteries - including, how do baby fish instantly know what to do when they hatch? They seemingly go straight to work, instinctively sussing out their surroundings, their role in the school, their duty to the parent fish and how to avoid predators - there doesn't seem to be any learning process involved, unlike our kind. And how does dry cleaning actually work? RATING = 0/10 ((should have tried "HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS", I guess))

7) ROBERT ASHLEY - "AUTOMATIC WRITING"

Robert Ashley has recorded so many things he probably can't even remember how many he's done himself. He must be about 80 now, and he's still knocking out weird records. I think I've clung onto this because it's one of the most genuinely strange things I've ever heard. By the way, have you ever heard that snippet of the Scratch Orchestra performing in London, with a woman in the audience screaming her lungs out in protest, before launching into some Blakeian hex? Google it. Back to Ashley - this album was inspired by Tourette's Syndrome and suicide, so we're onto a winner from the off. Probably his greatest opus, "Automatic Writing" is 45 minutes of what sounds like an incomprehensible, sleazy chat-up routine over the sound of rattling glass and a bassline from a third-generation cassette, while "Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon" is an eerie monologue from a woman about having a gun forced in her mouth, recited over a recurring moaning noise.

RESULTS - Worked! Out like a light. Slept through the whole thing, though I did wake up at 4am and felt a bit paranoid for no reason in particular. RATING= 10/10


8) NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS - "INVOCATION OF THE BEAST GODS"

They never had Psychic TV's extensive list of media contacts and connections, SPK's access to brutal surgical footage, Whitehouse's carefully cultivated aura of ambiguity and obscurity, nor Maurizio Bianchi's...er...Terry Wogan hair-do and red sweater. But Nocturnal EMissions could rock like bastards when they wanted, mashing up industrial, electro and hip hop beats to great effect on albums like "Drowning In A Sea of Bliss" (everyone should own a copy of this) and "Befehlsnotstand". Then, later on, they ditched the lot for ambient and even bagged a slot at WOMAD, which is more than you can say for Current 93. This is from their ambient droney period, and very nice it is too. You can probably use these tunes to summon Pan down your local allotment, if that's your bent. My bent was to test how conducive it is to a good night's SLEEP.

RESULTS - very pleasant. No sudden jarring effects or loud clatters to ruin the mood. This is how David Attenborough must feel when he unzips his tent at 6am in some misty bog, pops out for a pee, and observes a Sarcastic Fringehead at play. Did it work? Sort of. I fell asleep for about 3 minutes and missed a song. Incidentally, did you know that the Devil was always too scared to cross the Tamar into Cornwall, for fear of ending up the filling in a Cornish Pasty? RATING= 2/10

9) LAMONTE YOUNG - "THE BLACK RECORD"

Credit crunch befucked - this album still retails at $500. Naturally, I downloaded my copy from MUTANT SOUNDS blog, which is a great way to waste a fortnight at work, though I'd be a bit sceptical about some of the This is one of the best NDW / UK DIY / Fluxus / Krautrock / Psych / Drone obscurities ever made! claims that accompany each and every post. Oh, the ingratitude. Lamonte Young used to hang out with Yoko Ono, Hermann 'Mad Cow' Nitsch and other Fluxist bods, and, like most of his output, "The Black Record" was pressed in a very limited quantity. He didn't really have the internet or Pogues fans doing 'avant-garde bed tests' in mind when he produced this monolithic masterpiece of esoteric art-foolery.

RESULTS - Side 1 is just irritating nasal humming. Side 2 is much better, like waves of sheet metal gonging away. I could have listened to that all night. Then my arm went dead. Then it ended. RATING = 0/10

10) CHENE NOIR - "AURORA"

Oh get this - a French concept album about a bunch of brats who go to a planet populated by 'the bird people'. All the other students were getting beaten up by the police, assembling barricades and occupying their universities. Chene Noir were serving up a sub-Comus version of Button Moon

RESULTS - I lasted until the flute solo, laughed at the futility of it all, and drifted off to Keith Hudson's "Pick A Dub" instead. RATING = 0/10
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