Friday, 3 April 2009
Thursday, 2 April 2009
Two words and an Arizona burr; it's a recipe for intrigue. I ask Howe to elaborate. He kindly obliges.
"Well," he begins, drawing me closer to the phone, "it must have been embedded in my subconscious. However, I completely forgot about the advent of this scenario and happened to be sitting here completely still and almost ready for anything. I'd poured a stiff glass of my favourite scotch that I keep stashed at my favourite restaurant that I can't afford, and just like some old guy weathering on a splintered chair, waiting for my demise, the telephone rings… and it's my heart attack friend, that I've never met."
A little bit of background: this interview was due to occur exactly 24 hours earlier, but had to be postponed due to a little personal trauma, a health scare, that had taken place three days previously. Sitting at my desk following a cigarette that represented all the bad ideas I had ever had or ever would have, I noticed a tightening, dead centre in my chest. The tightening quickly solidified into a solid fist of pure discomfort. I tried flipping it off, but it wouldn't go away. At this point I started to sweat. My breath became laboured. I checked my face in the bathroom mirror and it was a sickly shade of grey.
I picked up the phone.
Roughly ten minutes later, I was in an ambulance. Thirty, and I was at the hospital with electrodes attached to my chest, and out of view (my choice) an orderly sucking out my blood through a needle in my arm. Ten hours or so, and I was on the street in Whitechapel with my intended, wearing a green hospital shirt, safe in the knowledge that I had not experienced a heart attack, but an artful imitator known as an oesophageal spasm. It could, the doctors told me, have been brought on by stress. I knew exactly which rat bastard – thanks Hunter – to blame for that, but that's another story for another day, comrades.
Oh, I say to Howe, you heard about that?
"Man, it's all over Denmark [Howe's current location and his wife's country of birth]. What happened exactly, you had an anxiety attack?"
No, I've had those before. This was different.
"Did you have the left arm go?"
No, just a chest pain. I started sweating, I turned grey…
"Your hair or your skin?"
Just my skin, my face. The hair would have been more distinguished. When your skin turns grey it's more like…
It might seem a tall order, but if the Angel Of Death is coming for me, I hope he's warm and funny and avuncular like Howe Gelb. It'd make things a whole lot easier.
For those who don't have access to the one-sheet, Arizona's most enigmatic sons, Giant Sand, have shimmered back into being and their new album is called Provisions. If 2004's Is All Over The Map was a dog-eared scrapbook of freakshow postcards, Provisions is more like a night drive on the way to a clandestine burial. Giant Sand always travel, smoothly or otherwise. This one's on the smooth side, but then 'smooth' is just a surface texture; there's no guarantee that what lies beneath won't draw blood. Ever since 1985's Valley Of Rain, Giant Sand have maintained a personable veneer while concealing a finely-tuned taste for chaos, using parched, countrified rock as a vessel for the exploration of inner and outer space rather than a refuge from the ravages of modernism. The only real constants have been Howe's voice and obvious enthusiasm for language, fusing to create a formidable cerebral superweapon, and his sensualist's attitude to musical texture.
"My work is totally scattered," confides Howe, who always sounds like he's confiding, no matter what he's actually saying. "At some point I bundle it all up and call it a specific thing, and the thing right now is this new Giant Sand record, I guess…"
How do you know when it's time for Giant Sand to re-emerge, as opposed to something that flies by any other name?
"It's in between something seasonal and something rotational, like a comet. It just kind of comes in and out of the atmosphere for a spell. It's like an atom, that little electron zipping around, and it's Giant Sand time in the nucleus when it gets close. Then this other electron zips around and it's 'Sno Angel [Howe's gospel-influenced 2006 project] time, then this other electron zips around and it's Gypsy Flamenco time.
Does Giant Sand dictate the style of song you write, or vice versa?
"No, it's not the songs. That's why we've changed songs every night… in the early days, for the first two thirds of this run, my run, I would change songs around every night, just because they were fucking asking for it. So I would mess with them, we'd make 4/4 songs into waltzes and see if that would fit, just to excite ourselves, we were playing to make this game out of it. By doing that, you bring this element of excitement into it, because you don't really know what's happening and everybody's in it to make it happen and see how far we can make it happen and to go to that place that makes it a little bit dizzy with it as opposed to making it tried and true and stale. It's not the songs, I don't think; I think it's more the flavour of the camaraderie. When you have a certain camaraderie it lends itself to a certain sound. That's what Giant Sand has always been."
Howe speaks of Giant Sand in a manner which reminds me of '60s and '70s counter-culture science fiction. It's entirely fitting, too; one can easily imagine the loose protagonists of Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly gulping back handfuls of Substance D to 2000's Chore Of Enchantment, or shoving a tape of 2001's Cover Magazine in the car stereo on the way to a pick up. This is something that separates Giant Sand from their lesser peers in Americana, perhaps attributable to Howe Gelb's considerable speed-of-mind; they disorientate. They knock time out of joint. They're everywhere and nowhere (baby).
"I think every artist – I use the term loosely… let's call 'em plumbers – every plumber has a sensitivity antenna that allows them to pick up signals at least 12 minutes into the future. So he just smells the smoke of the fire coming, and that's usually his smoulder, y'know, that's the sound he's making. So sometimes you come up with a record that'll need 20 years for people to find acceptable, sometimes it's only 20 minutes."
There's a sudden disturbance at Howe's end of the phone line; I hear an lightly accented voice. While the words are unclear, the meaning is unmistakable.
"Ah, they're closing! So I'll just sit out there with this? No, I'll sit on the wooden part… all right. The restaurant's closing up."
Oh, right, I say. I ask Howe what time it is in Aarhus. Ever polite, he conducts two conversations simultaneously, one with me, the other with the staff of the restaurant he's being asked to vacate.
"It's like 10:30 or 11:00… this is? You did? It's a nice bag. I love this little place. No, I'm good, it's good. Keep me young. You know, Friday night in Aarhus… yeah! I look a little weird here? Can you sit on these boxes? No, someone will take the chair, won't they, they'll throw it through the window. No, don't worry about it. Don't… I'll just sit right here and I'll be good [laughs] I don't need a chair!"
Thursday, 26 June 2008
Monday, 23 June 2008
The Devolutionary Oath:
1. Be like your ancestors or be different. It doesn't matter.
2. Lay a million eggs or give birth to one.
3. Wear gaudy colors or avoid display. It's all the same.
4. The fittest shall survive yet the unfit may live.
5. We must repeat.
Devo started a joke which started the whole world crying. Okay, that isn't actually the case. What really happened was, Devo started a joke that eventually came true, a joke which reflected the outwardly vacant smile and repressed urges of the culture that produced them. Nowadays James Murphy may warble about 'North American Scum' to the delight of would-be ironists everywhere, but he's merely producing a comfortably numbed variant - minus the true horror - of the original manifesto originally developed by Ohio students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis as far back as the late 1960s. Inspired partly by pseudo-scientific objections to Darwinism and, one suspects, partly by their own status in hometown Akron as sexually invisible egghead geeks, the manifesto of De-evolution is an ever-shifting collection of ideas, a satirical prism vital to the dissemination of Casale and Lewis’ cynical world view; Jungian psychology, Reichian Orgone theory, Crumb-esque sexual dementia, Church Of The SubGenius pranksterism all filter through, unified by the central idea that the human race has ceased to develop and is now sliding back towards its primitive origins. It isn't a world gone mad. It's a world gone stupid.
Devo started a joke which became serious at the precise moment Casale witnessed the murder of some of his fellow students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, during a protest against the invasion of Cambodia launched by President Nixon on April 25. Four students were killed, nine were injured.
"It changed my life completely. That was the defining trauma. When you see people shot, when one bullet goes through a 19 year-old that you know, the hole, the exit wound that it leaves, all the screaming, the crying, the slow-motion like in 'Raging Bull'... within hours the university was closed. There were bands of deputised locals roving around in cars with shotguns. And the evening paper put out a false headline, 'Students have shot guardsmen'. So people were looking to kill students."
William Burroughs explained the concept of the 'Naked Lunch' as "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". The Kent State massacre would seem to have been Casale's own frozen moment.
"You watched a complete lie unfold. You watched the hatred. It was basically like a civil war. You've got to remember the people that shot the kids were the same age as the kids, they were national guardsmen, they were 19. And it was at the height of the protests over the Vietnam war, and the illegal extension of that war into Cambodia, without an act of congress, back when people were informed about their government and the constitution and they cared. Today obviously everybody just goes, 'Uh, give me my Frappucino and I'll put it in the cup holder of my SUV.' One lie after another, one cynical piece of misinformation after another, from this moronic junta that rules our world – nobody even turns their heads. It was a different world then. Ideas mattered, and the constitution seemed to matter to millions of Americans. It was real, it wasn't senseless killing, it was directed political hatred."
Casale and Lewis responded to this shocking absurdity with yet more absurdity. Fellow Kent State art student (and now highly successful soundtrack composer) Mark Mothersbaugh soon entered the fold, introducing the pair to the highly entertaining 1924 anti-evolutionary pamphlet ‘Jocko-Homo Heavenbound’ by one Doctor BH Shadduck. Devo was gradually reconfigured from a Dada-esque arts lab to a more focused audio-visual collective, adopting uniforms and embracing pop music as a possible means to an end.
“We were openly subversive in the beginning. But no-one was paying attention, that's the beauty of America – no-one pays attention at all. By the time it gained some kind of traction and got on the radar then certain people would write about it. As soon as we had any success we were viciously attacked as clowns and fascists and anti-humane. Completely misunderstood. People missed the irony and thought we were all for conformity.”
In 1974, Devo made ‘In The Beginning Was The End: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution’. Essentially an extended music video for two songs, ‘Secret Agent Man’ and ‘Jocko Homo’, the film introduced characters that embodied the concept of De-Evolution. Played by Mothersbaugh’s father Robert, General Boy symbolised 1950s-style paternal authority while his son Booji Boy, played by Mothersbaugh Jr in a plastic child mask, represented the tendency towards poop-playing regression Devo had observed in Western culture. An unmasked Mark in lab coat delivers a lecture to an audience of Jocko Homo (‘ape-men’) who later riot and stab Booji Boy to death. ‘In The Beginning...’ provided Devo with their first big messy splash, winning an award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. This led to the vocal support of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, which in turn secured the band a deal with Warner Bros.
The film remains an uncomfortable experience. Not exactly funny and not quite serious, it aims for the guts of the audience and succeeds in inspiring a kind of creeping nausea. This queasiness is central to Devo’s aesthetic both musically and conceptually; satire exists to bring sickness to the surface, and songs like ‘Soo Bawlz’, ‘Be Stiff’, ‘Shrivel Up’, ‘Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)’, ‘Penetration In The Centrefold’ and ‘Buttered Beauties’ act as conduits for the repressed urges of the American male. If Robert Crumb’s cartoons offered an exploded view of unfettered masculine sexuality reigning over its own uncensored kingdom, Devo’s frantic meditations on mongoloids, vaginal discharge, horny pre-teen mentally-handicapped girls and midgets who “play underneath... mama’s skirts all day” were their musical equivalent. And while their song structures tended towards an uptight jerkiness suggestive of a punishing, panicked bout of masturbation, the frequent squirts of analogue synth (especially dominant on the 4-track recordings collected on Rykodisc’s essential yet sadly deleted Hardcore Devo 74-77 compilations) are rudely redolent of bodily (mal)functions, the burp and squelch of messy sex, flatulence and diarrhea.
The synthetically-minded end of America’s noise underground owes a huge debt to Devo’s dirty-minded emissions. This band set the standard for angry male geek energy and prurient sexuality, and led some commentators to accuse the band of misogyny. It has to be said, they have a point - Devo songs often essay a gynecological curiosity that often spills over into cruelty, prodding and poking at the unfamiliar with a combination of lust and disgust. However Casale sees the band as victims, hapless undersexed outsiders without any hope of copping a feel, let alone subjugating the opposite sex. This seems disingenuous at first - as we all know, geeks can hate women too - but the perverse honesty of Devo’s sexual politics counts in their favour, and if it proves repellent, well... it is. What can you do?
“I don't think it was misogynistic at all. We were more like the Three Stooges, whenever they have girlfriends in one of their episodes they're being brow-beaten and pushed around and man-handled by the woman, you know, pussy whipped. We were passive males of tender tails in Ohio and we were on the short end of the stick when it came to women. What we noticed in culture though, was the complete hypocrisy where on the one hand sex is being sued to sell everything and on the other it's always being presented as bad.”
Something to be feared?
“Exactly. So when Mark wrote 'Penetration In The Centrefold' it was because some big magazine, like Penthouse or something had for the first time ever shown penetration in the centrefold. So he was like telling the news, he goes down to the store and… it was just reportage.”
“We used to put up these satirical and ironic statements that people took at face value, as serious manifestos. We said that ‘Rebellion and individuality is obsolete in corporate society’ and ‘Your mission is to fit in’. And they were like ‘Wow, these guys are fascists!’ You know, that's how Rolling Stone felt. Ridiculous. Clowns, Nazis, you know. While the real clowns and real Nazis were being put on the cover.”
Were the American rock critics a constant adversery?
“From the beginning, absolutely. They did not like what we were doing, it didn't fit in to the whole thing. All the radio programmers were like fake hippies who wore the satin jackets and were getting paid off in whores and cocaine and still liked The Eagles and just hated Devo.”
You mean you never got the opportunity to be paid off in whores or cocaine?
“No. We paid for our cocaine.”
At roughly the same time in England, Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti were launching their own offensive against the hypocrisy of decency, first as COUM Transmissions, then as Throbbing Gristle. It’s interesting to compare the two outfits. Like Devo, TG were lapsed hippies with an artsy background, they were inexorably drawn towards taboo subject matter, exhibited a love of synthetic texture and harboured a secret obsession with E-Z listening. They too, attracted accusations of fascism. It’s perhaps even more fascinating though to consider the ways in which the two groups diverged - brought up with pervasive American ideals of success, Devo briefly became the truly subversive pop group by way of their acute observation of such pop conventions as harmony, melody and damnably catchy toons. If this combination proved initially offputting to American ears, it quickly won the group a dedicated European following.
“Europe is where we first gained success. England got us in a big way right away, totally got the irony, the humour. Loved the performance quality of Devo and the multimedia quality. You know, the message was like ‘Ok we get it, great.’ and then they were on to the next thing. We actually probably lasted a little longer in terms of popularity in Germany, and believe it or not, Italy. Up to '84 we were very popular in Italy, so I think that in general the European audience was more informed, more sophisticated.”
But then, Europe was better prepared. There were obvious parallels between Devo and the streamlined epiphanies of Krautrock, especially Kraftwerk - the uniforms, the repetition, the steam-piston rhythms, the mannered, robotic method of playing - and no-one of great significance in America was using synths in such a goddamn European - or ‘faggy’, because in Europe we are all ‘fags’ - way. Devo’s 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was almost an honorary krautrock document, having been produced by Brian Eno at Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne. Although it’s now accepted as a post-punk cult classic, in truth it’s a little too clean, a little too Enossified, and as a result lacks the rough robotic energy and effluent electronic splurge of the band’s pre-Eno material. Casale and the band reputedly tried to convince Eno to perfectly replicate the sound of their demos, leading Eno to brand the band ‘anal’.
The Hornbyite drones of the mainstream music press will tell you that Q: Are We Not Men?... is the only truly essential Devo album, that Duty Now For The Future (1979), Freedom Of Choice (1980), New Traditionalists (1981), Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982) and Shout (1984) are little more the desperate splutterings of a novelty band outstaying their welcome, perhaps grudgefully admitting that motivational S&M anthem ‘Whip It’ from Freedom... is a pretty good tune. This news may shock some of our more sensitive readers, but guess what? They’re wrong. Over the course of these five albums, Devo dispensed with guitars in favour of gleaming, hi-definition (if frequently haywire) synthwork, while the lyrics swung wildly between pitch-black pessimism and pisstake perkiness. Post-debut Devo did not only give us ‘Whip It’, but also ‘Freedom Of Choice’, ‘Girl U Want’, ‘Gates Of Steel’, ‘Through Being Cool’, ‘Peek-A-Boo’ and ‘Beautiful World’. The latter, a bitterly poignant assault on the asinine positivity of the Reagan administration, is Devo at their angriest and most honest. It’s surprising and a little disappointing, then, that Casale considers the end of the true Devo to have taken place as early as 1978.
“I'm trying right now to make a feature film about us. It would start in 1974 and end in 1978 when we go on Saturday Night Live, and were a big hit that night. It's called ‘The Beginning Was The End’ and the way you watch the movie, you know that it’s over that night. That Devo, the real Devo, is over.”
So what was the Devo that came after that?
“Then you get to the corporate meat grinder, and all the things that come with it, both the good and bad. The pressures and the insanity, because basically your fate isn't your own any more. Because you can't really do that many things to control it.”
Of course, the news on every spud’s lips is that Devo are about to tour the UK for the first time in over fifteen years. Good news, right? A ‘legendary’ band returning to our shores, a chance to see something many of us were too young to experience the first time around. Yeah, great. Yawn. But wait - can this world really be as dumb as it seems? Could it be getting even dumber? And could it be that somehow Devo are more relevant now than ever? Maybe.
“Devo was a serious joke. We didn't even really believe things would get this bad. Now we see that we were unfortunately very right, beyond our expectations. De-evolution is real and we're all living in a de-evolved, corporate, futile world. Run by morons, and run by ideologues written by greed and religion of every stripe – it's not just the Muslims, it's our guys right here. They're itching for a fight because they're fundamentalist Christians. Your own guy Tony is in on that, and it's horror. A normal rational person that pays their bills, minds their own business has a high IQ just sits back in horror and watches the world be hijacked by morons and creeps. And pays the price. Nobody cares because there's a mass of sheep out there who are just consumer conformists, who have been turned into an audience. And they download ‘content’. And it's awful. And that's it. There's informed focus group who check an opinion poll and it's all moronic, a circus.”
Still, do we need another ‘legendary’ band clogging up the circuit? Not really. Fortunately Devo are hardly your average legends. Even when they’ve done the right thing, they’ve done it beautifully wrong, and as fellow Plan B writer Emily Bick remarked to me, they’re never going to be an easy hipster sell. Feel a bit queasy buying tickets for the nostalgia show? Good. It’s part of what it means to be Devo. And we’re all Devo.
“When I was in college, I would go and see John Lee Hooker or Howlin' Wolf and it was kind of like a war movie where I was scared but I loved every minute of it. It was intense and kind of threatening. But they were so good at what they did, and you couldn't believe they were doing it as grown men. I think when Devo walks on stage and can still do this stuff aggressively, it's kind of scary.”
Yes, Gerry. It sure is.
The music of Asva reminds me of the one and only time I took DMT. Up on a hill above Hastings, I saw constellations knit themselves into vast scorpion-like starships, a village in the distance take on the appearance of an illuminated medieval castle, control cables descend from the cosmos and the space directly above me solidify into a ceiling, through which a tunnel opened and I was drawn upwards into what I recognised as The Invisible College. Asva similarly cause one to ponder the the hidden geometries of magick and science. The title of their debut album, Futurists Against The Ocean smacks not so much of a genuine opposition as a juxtaposition or superimposition, the rubbing up or lamination of the immersive and mutable against the angular and monolithic. Of course, G. Stuart Dahlquist, Asva leader and avant-metal veteran (ex-Sunn 0))), Goatsnake and Burning Witch) offers his own interpretation...
“The visual and poetic art that resulted directly from the Futurist movement that occurred in Russia in the early part of the last century seems similar to Asva's contribution to our vast ocean of humanity, of listening choices,” he says. “Theres so much crap floating in that water! My hope would be that Asva and like-minded musicians, artists and writers could move to create a different level of listening... not trying to play the heaviest riff or rip anyones head off with some killer show, quite the opposite. Part of Futurist thinking (if I'm getting it right) is making something that hits you differently than smack in the face. Meaning is found through pondering, absorbing whats in front of you with mind, more so than eyes.”
Like his old bandmate Stephen O’Malley and the growing number of kindred spirits operating in the twilight zone between metal and drone, Dahlquist is acutely aware of his music’s capacity for physical and psychological transformation.
“Frequently, when done playing, my ears will pop, like coming up from a deep dive,” he explains. “The sound is what gets me off. Waves of bottom end just pushing right through me, Trey (Spruance, guitar) and Troy (Swanson, Hammond Organ)’s subtle juxtaposition, Jessika (Kenney, vocals)'s shrill screams, her beautiful lyric, B.R.A.D. and his skeletal drumming. I used to meditate a lot... I left my body, got scared, and now I've got Asva. So many times while playing shows, I've had to choke back sobs, the music just hits me so squarely in my emotional core.”
Asva: metal that moves.
I remember embarking on camping holidays with my family in the late 80s and early 90s and a cassette of Imaginos (along with Secret Treaties, Spectres and a compilation entitled Career Of Evil) provided the perfect soundtrack to our inevitably rain-soaked trips to the south coast, or Wales. When you're young and susceptible to parent-induced boredom, music can add the necessary perfume to an imperfect situation, tranforming your predicament into something with the scent of adventure. The rain, sea and stars begin to whisper their secrets. The veil lifts a fraction. Magick is afoot.
"The Oyster boys are swimming now/Hear them chatter on the tide" - 'Blue Oyster Cult'
The concept of Imaginos was originally formulated in 1967 by Blue Oyster Cult manager, producer and lyricist Sandy Pearlman, and detailed in a collection of poems collectively titled 'The Soft Doctrines Of Immaginos'. Fragments of this concept surfaced in early 70s BOC songs such as 'Subhuman', 'Astronomy' and 'ETI' before its eventual shoring up into the album released in 1988. "Basically, it's an interpretation of history," explained Pearlman to Kerrang! magazine in September that year. "An explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it. Imaginos is the main character, and is what I call 'an actor in history'. He plays different roles in history and was born as a modified child, modified by an alien influence, and his mission is to present the human race with the challenge of evil. The aliens are playing with our history as if it's a game, and he motivates the game and presents the choices to the human race. They react as they will."
"The writing in the notebook/Notation from the stars" - 'I Am The One You Warned Me Of'
The narrative thread of Imaginos - described in the sleevenotes as a 'random access myth' - makes reference to the Spanish conquest of the New World, Haitian Voodoo, the reign of Elizabeth I and her counsel by occult advisor Dr. John Dee (who claimed to converse with spirits using a 'magic mirror' fashioned in Mexico from black volcanic stone), Lovecraftian gods, Egyptian fertility rites, hallucinogenic cacti ("Do the Don Pedro" - 'Les Invisibles'), the discredited Sirius myth of the African Dogon tribe as documented by Robert Anton Wilson in Cosmic Trigger, and the gothic literary traditions of Europe and America. Pearlman weaves a rich tapestry of truth, half-truth and out-and-out fantasy to spellbinding effect, and it is this rigorous dedication to the weird that makes Imaginos possibly the most literate and intelligent rock concept album ever devised. Enigmatic and often wilfully obtuse, Imaginos nevertheless lives up to its billing as "A bedtime story for the children of the damned." The cover image, perhaps harking back to the 'Black & White' trilogy of Blue Oyster Cult (1972), Tyranny And Mutation (1973) and Secret Treaties (1974), is a monochrome photograph of San Francisco's Cliff House Hotel, built in 1863. The hotel glowers on the cliffs, ghost-lit against a skyful of cumulonimbus. If I ever visit San Francisco, that's where I'd like to stay.
"Where witches went mad more than once" - 'Magna Of Illusion'
The unsavoury aspect of Imaginos becomes apparent when one considers its origins as a projected solo album by ex-drummer Albert Bouchard, and what appears to have been the wholesale hijacking of the project by Pearlman and the remaining members of BOC. Bouchard worked on the project with Pearlman after leaving the band in the early 80s, and BOC's label CBS showed interest, but allegedly requested that it be released as under the Blue Oyster Cult name. BOC broke up and the idea was eventually abandoned, but revived following the band's reformation - without Albert - in 1987. The released version of Imaginos contains basic tracks recorded by Bouchard and selected session musicians, with some elements overdubbed by Pearlman and Oyster boys Eric Bloom (vocals, guitars), Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser (vocals, guitars) and Allen Lanier (keyboards). Having been shut out of his own album project, Bouchard has expressed disappointment and anger at his old bandmates and manager. It's extremely unlikely that the original line-up will ever work together again.
"I've lived upon the edge of chance/For twenty years or more/And this is what my friends all mean" - 'Del Rio's Song'
Sonically, Imaginos is fucking odd, a disorientating blend of overblown pomp rock, AOR, metal and sea-shanty power pop. 'I Am The One You Warned Me Of', 'Les Invisibles', 'Del Rio's Song' and 'Magna Of Illusion' strike an uneasy balance between the sinister mysticism of Blue Oyster Cult, Tyranny & Mutation and Secret Treaties and the radio-friendly gloss of the group's post-'Don't Fear The Reaper' incarnation. This was clearly no formula for mainstream success, and the album effectively wiped itself from history. But it's the story within the story that makes Imaginos so fascinating. A narrative spanning 200 years of myth and magick, it stands as testament not only to one of America's greatest bands, but also the unsung imagination of Sandy Pearlman, a maverick conceptualist convinced that rock music could be a vehicle not only for atavistic gratification or the expression of utopian ideals... but also for the starry wisdom glimpsed in fever dreams and wild hallucinations.
"So ladies fish and gentlemen/Here's my idle plea/See me in the blue sky bag/Meet me by the sea" - 'Blue Oyster Cult'
Minidisc was originally released in 1998 on the OR label and was the world's first Minidisc-only release. One of the selling points of this shiny new technology was that there was 'zero seek time' between track flips, something that now comes as standard on most digital media. It was Gescom's intention to exploit this feature, so they came up with 88 tracks designed to be played at random, theoretically offering the listener a brand new listening experience every time they pressed 'Play'. It reads like a smug contrivance, a clever-dick irrelevance. But when you listen to Minidisc in sequence it's impressive but ultimately really fucking dull, an interminable trudge through chops, bits and bytes seemingly designed to show off just how crazy a few geeks can get with a jolly bit of DSP. It's soulless, shallow, tiresome.
Use Minidisc in the manner its makers intended, though, and the project instantly comes alive in your ears. The juxtaposition between industrial drone and chopped-to-fuck hip-hop beats, twisted metallic klang and flatline hum creates something utterly compelling in its rapid-fire weirdness. Each of these 88 fragments work so well as random elements (rather than constituents of a fixed, finished whole) that the result forces a revision of how we listen to music, perhaps also foreseeing our culture's current predilection for Party Shuffling brief tinny bursts of digital sound. Of course, you could pull the same trick with any album. The crucial difference with this one is that you're meant to. And Minidisc is remarkable because it only becomes a coherent, cohesive piece of music when chance is allowed to configure its pleasures.
Hmm... did I say pleasures? Minidisc is much more noise than electronica, more Whitehouse than Boards Of Canada, and digital is perhaps the ideal format for noise lovers of a masochistic bent. Whereas analogue synthesis is generally mimetic of the sounds of the human body, the clean crackle of digital is alien and therefore instinctively threatening. When it doesn't sound sharp, brittle and invasive, it sounds crushed, fibrous and itchy. There are times when, listening to Minidisc, I recall the sting of fibre-glass on my hands from years ago, the tiny fragments stuck beneath my skin and the angry irritation that resulted. Digital isn't malicious or capricious, as analogue often is, it's merely uncaring and austere, a robot reconstruction of how things should be. This, of course, makes it fascinating, especially when users give up attempting to humanize its null flow and instead focus on the very lack of nourishment at its centre. Those seeking pain from their noise may have found a perfect, distant dominantion in its cold embrace. One of the things that characterises Gescom's - and Autechre's - music is an interest in sound as object in itself, rather than conveyor of meaning or emotion, which itself is suggestive of the dissociative nature of fetishism.
But there is poignance as well as blind sensation to Minidisc's constant flux, a layer of melancholy attributable to the fact that this album has been reissued on the very same format the Minidisc was designed to supplant. It's an acceptance of failure. Minidisc therefore enters a second lease of life as a requiem for futures past, a hymn to obsolescence.