Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

 
Released November 22, 2011
 
Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims
  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan

Maybe it’s just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I’ve relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already–I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There’s no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don’t know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I’ve known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there’s nothing true in either–I’ve never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I’d chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.


I don’t really know what it is. I’ve got “hooks” if you will–I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa’s book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (…almost…) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them–though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe–how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience–how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn’t make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend–after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I’ve had with others–Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef “milking” my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike’s quiet and humble (!–if you’ve heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak’s appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger’s shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP…and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is–something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It’s hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It’s harder still with a group of artists who’ve shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn’t struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It’s a solid fanbase, but they aren’t Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you’ll find P.O.S.’s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don’t like rap, or think they don’t like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I’ll suggest to anyone upon finding they “don’t like rap”. I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album’s release in 2011, there were 2 “crew albums” that appeared–one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of “demonstration” recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they’ve since noted was more about trying to balance everyone’s appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group’s talents as a group. It feels to me–however right or wrong–like the penultimate track on Sims’ Lights Out Paris, “No Homeowners” was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled “Renter’s Rebate” and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length “devotional” to the group.

“No Way” kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the “additional guitar” contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil’s hook begins to fade in: “We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we’re weilding will react when we’re feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we’re on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy.” Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm (“You’re so vain/You probably think it’s about you/Well it is and it ain’t/And it ain’t, but it is…”), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently (“Light the rag on your cocktail”–how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group’s prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he’d follow this one with, We Don’t Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to “Bolt Cutter” leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef’s hook brings with it (“My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it’s gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them…”). It’s a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: “They said couldn’t have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that’s that”), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa’s ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, “You know, I’ve seen a little glory/And your trinket isn’t it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era’s over, but we’ll rise and fall again,” picking up Sims’ lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: “This ain’t Kansas, show of hands/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis.” And it’s the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: “The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us.” Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, “We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go.”

It’s strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but “Bangarang” proves that it happened². It’s a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was “Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne” in “No Homeowners”). Mike’s hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group–“Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang”. Tying in to their logo–a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in “Traveling Dunk Tank” on that 12th False Hopes–there it is again!–with the lines “I’m tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth”, which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group’s core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: “Buy I got ya’ll when I see y’all/And I keep ya’ll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here.” And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: “But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That’s up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like–whew.” (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren’t listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above–all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), “Beacon” is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil’s hook calms it all–“I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don’t go there, go there/She knows the way home”. He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him–“You know your way home? You gonna be all right?”–and then drops the song’s title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us “Punch Out”, lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of “Beacon”‘s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in–and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan’s mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It’s just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that–they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

“Little Mercy” gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it’s not a found recording, of course. Cecil’s hook is lengthy but brilliant: “Now the candle’s in the window and it’s open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It’s the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning”. It’s another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa’s on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words (“We’re so thirsty…”) and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to “The Grand Experiment” (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album’s release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil’s hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it’s nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef’s hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don’t sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman’s pitch–a snake oil salesman, that is (“But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that’s respectable/It’s cheap and it’s ethical…well, it’s ethical…well, it’s magical really.”) Mictlan carries the track’s thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

“String Theory” is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style–the kind we’d hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as “The Wren” is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to “Team the Best Team” on sound as if we’ve reached the final, triumphant track of the album–but we aren’t there yet. There’s a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps–not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect–hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn’t to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in “Gimme the Go” may or may not be Stef’s responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak’s or Cecil’s (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There’s a vocal sample in “Own Yours” that has a light touch to it, and it’s allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef’s words and the clap and clatter of the beat’s hardest points. His verse as well as Sims’, Cecil’s and Mike’s all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else–the specifics aren’t important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak’s hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: “And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go”–it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there’s something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike’s flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: “But the long and short is…/We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel”. These struggles are fuel.

After “No Homeowners” it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, “Fresh New Trash”, but it’s not a mess of those varied styles, it’s cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words (“Hey, all right, okay…”). There’s even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef’s hook: “Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don’t hold back/Understand it’s over before you know…” the beat changes entirely when Stef’s verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa’s proud words (“I’ve been boom/I’ve been bust/I rep Doom/Til I’m dust”), but it’s Mictlan’s verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: “This isn’t indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that’s brought us here/It’s written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/”It’s win, lose or tie”/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won’t Save You/Sell ’em absolution with a verse.” We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There’s no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There’s a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad.

There’s something amazing about tracks like “Fresh New Trash” and “Prizefight” (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and “No Homeowners” and “Crew” (from Dessa’s Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There’s something absolute and real, something that doesn’t fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there’s something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don’t operate themselves–and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be–perhaps it isn’t and couldn’t be for them, but it is that to me. It’s cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone–even if you don’t like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa’s material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that’s a frustration–I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference ‘the golden era’ in the same sense, but in different ways, in “Bolt Cutter”–or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don’t Even Live Here with “Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action” and the line “Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck”. It’s a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it’s probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in–just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won’t get the full effect (at least, I certainly can’t ever read things like lyrics–or poetry–and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there’s not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: “This world’s gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore”–in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that “world” anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That’s a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex’s, of course. More people know that one because he’s more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being “stolen” which I stupidly participated in, until we’d both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway–not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.

Day Fifty: Cursive – Burst and Bloom

Saddle Creek ■ LBJ-35

Released July 24, 2001

Produced by Mike Mogis and Cursive
Recorded by Mike Mogis
Mastered by Doug Van Sloun



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sink to the Beat
  2. The Great Decay
  3. Tall Tales, Telltales
  1. Mothership, Mothership, Do You Hear Me?
  2. Fairy Tales Tell Tales

If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.

A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.

What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.

“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.

After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.

“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.

Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing.  Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.

The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.

“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”

Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.

Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.

There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.

I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.

  • Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?

¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.

Day Thirty-Six: Caustic Window – Compilation

Rephlex Records ■ CAT009LP
Released June 1, 1998
(EP release dates below)
Produced by Richard D. James



Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m cheating. While the credited artist for this release is “Caustic Window”, that is, in fact, one of the (many) pseudonyms of one Richard D. James, whose most famous monikers are AFX and, of course, The Aphex Twin. If you’ve been reading here a while, or if you just click that link, you’ll see that this is not the first of his releases for me to cover here. However, because I feel it’s legitimate to treat this as a “C” release (alphabetically speaking), it avoids the issue of clustering multiple days around a single artist and allows me to cover more of my collection while not (strictly) violating the alphabet. It’s not the only time this will occur, but this is the time they’ll come closest together (the other I can think of off the top of my head is Leon Russell, who will obviously appear much later, but who released two albums with Marc Benno, at least the first of which was credited originally to The Asylum Choir).


In any case, this is a compilation of the 3 EPs James released as Caustic Window, which were put out by the label he co-founded, Rephlex. The original releases of each EP were actually a bit larger, some tracks being shaved off with the CD release of this as Compilation as well as the original vinyl issue of it as a 3xLP in three conjoined clear plastic sleeves. Each EP loses one track in the process, those being: “Popcorn” (a version of the Gershon Kingsley track made famous by Hot Butter) from Joyrex J4, an untitled track from Joyrex J5 typically nicknamed “R2-D2”, and “H.M.N.E.” (“Humanoid Must Not Escape”) from Joyrex J9i.

Despite the compilation’s release date above, the EPs were released much earlier, and I’ve included those release dates below each EP’s title.

Joyrex J4

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT004)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Joyrex J4
  2. AFX II
  3. Cordialotron
  1. Italic Eyeball
  2. Pigeon Street

The title track from Joyrex J4 is built from the sound of a wobbling piece of cardstock (unlikely this is actually what was used, but it tells you what it sounds like), but quickly eschews this by turning into the acid house that makes up all of these EPs. The beat is pounding and rapid, not necessarily designed for actual dancing (allegedly, James created his early track “Digeridoo” and its 140bpm beat to wear dancers out at DJ gigs). Layered into the beat are more wobbling–though the later instances are more electronic, an angular rise-and-fall melody, a distant, phasing buzz and a difficult to describe sound that skips as if being halted from high speeds.

“AFX II” (while there are some instances in which James obscures his identity, to the point that speculation still marks releases from that artist insofar as who it actually is, often he makes no attempt to hide it, and does so only as a matter of distinguishing styles and labels they are released on) is one of the hardest beats in the set, sounding as if it’s a second generation recording, and maybe, just maybe, built on ambient sampling of some banal piece of machinery. It’s a short track, but an appreciably aggressive one.
“Cordialotron” is one of the tracks that most recalls his only-slightly-earlier work on things like Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It’s not a very hard beat, though it’s definitely strong enough to fit in its place in these releases. It’s strongly melodic, via its use of a looped melody that emulates a keyboard, and a warping sort of “lead” that rides over it. If you liked SAW8-92, this will feel way more familiar and comfortable, with the production approach also resembling that, with that echoing spaciousness and a minimal drum section (for this release, anyway).
The haunting (reversed) Julie Andrews (!) sample that opens “Italic Eyeball” implies we’re in for more ambient techno, and doesn’t really let down. It’s still very strong on rhythm, even as compared to “Cordialotron”, but it the woodwind-esque ethereal melody has a semi-central role, and the percussive section does actually deal in varying pitches, even using a bass-like loop to help glue the track together.
“Pigeon Street” is a wonderfully cheerful slice of fun, at only 0:23 running time, sounding as if it might have been taken from a children’s program from the late 70s or the 80s, cheerful and melodic, using plunking melody for rhythm, and “nasal”  bounces for the “lead” melody. Unsurprisingly, there was a children’s program on the BBC in ’81, that actually did use a partly synthesized theme song (it doesn’t sound at all alike though, especially as it is primarily an actual acoustically played theme).

Joyrex J5

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT005)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Astroblaster
  2. On the Romance Tip
  1. Joyrex J5

Unsurprisingly, “Astroblaster” returns us to the more hardcore side of James’ Caustic Windows material, pulling out a truly stomping beat, and keeping its melodic variations somewhat abrasive and metallic, as many of the sounds are on these EPs. A harsh buzzing hum is the primary melodic “instrument”, one that in some ways hints at the sounds that would work their way into his less repetitive (ie, not acid house) releases in the coming years. Hints of the sounds of “On” can actually be heard here, though used in entirely different ways.

“On the Romance Tip”, at open, almost sounds as though it could turn out to be truly ambient: the opening segment wouldn’t have been out of place on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, but an actual percussive track does worm its way in after a few measures, placing it more in the vein of the original Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and its “ambient techno” designation. As such, this is still the kind of track most people will find more pleasant and more palatable. The sustained notes that make the melody are cold, distant and expansive, but quite pretty. The fidgety secondary rhythm track keeps it all moving and from being too somber, too. It actually ends with the sounds you’d expect more from the earliest electronic artists, who recorded in the early 70s, sort of like really badly synthesized strings–a sound I happen to enjoy, actually.
Because the emphasis of these EPs is on primarily acid house tracks, the title track for Joyrex J5 ends this version of the EP (it does end the original version as well) on that note. It is a less harsh track than “Astroblaster”, though, even if it is the longest track in the entire series. The beat is rapid and not overly focused on bass, which keeps the track centered more in the midrange and helps its comfort level for listeners a lot (barring those who are really big on the harsh sounds, anyway). The completely unrelated rhythm and melody that comes in about a third of the way through is not an unusual technique at this point for James, and the way it comes in and ignores everything else, just hovering in the background with a sense of mysticism is part of what tends to make his work better for sitting and listening, or listening more than just feeling in a rave-y context (that’s why he suggested that his work be called “Braindance”–which appears on the only liner notes for this album, apparently actually trademarked–instead of the pretentious and snobby “intelligent dance music”). Oddly, that melody, despite its completely disjointed placement, manages to make the song quite pleasant indeed, even as the sped-up-saw sound of the primary hook cuts at your ear.

Joyrex J9

Originally released September, 1993 (J9i); December, 1993 (J9ii)
(Originally CAT009i and CAT009ii)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Fantasia
  2. Clayhill Dub
  1. The Garden of Linmiri
  2. We Are the Music Makers [Hardcore Mix]

If you don’t like the harsh noises, “Fantasia”, at least its opening, are not going to be your friend. Something like a machine starting up, or failing, or a locked groove of the same, it drops quickly both in pitch and even existence for the squeaking alarm-like centrepiece of the song, which is backed by a pounding, bass-heavy rhythm track, and a jagged, distorted lead “melodic” line. That line is aggressive, but actually quite cool. It’s actually hard for me to really say “harsh” here except in comparative terms. This shouldn’t really be “ear-bleed” kinds of harsh at all, just not something that makes you sigh contentedly. Of course, amusingly, a few minutes in (another of the longer tracks here), we hear a sample from a (purported) porn film–“Oooh, ooh!” from a female voice, which is eventually given a moment in isolation to play fully: “Oooh, ooh! That’s great, yeah!” says an, ah, excited female voice. While James has done this kind of thing before (and would again later), it doesn’t seem at all like it’s really “connecting” to porn or making the track actually sleazy: instead, it feels like James is wryly referencing the quality of his music (which he would also later do without the orgasmic association, via tracks like (despite what the title might imply to you) “Cock/Ver10”. 

“Clayhill Dub” is likely so named because it is focused less on bass kicks than it is on a bassy melodic line, which throbs throughout and keeps the song centered entirely around the low end. Occasional splashes of metallic clank and rattle, echoing or just striking momentarily wander in here and there, but largely it’s just that bassy line.
“The Garden of Linmiri” uses an alarm-like noise, not unlike “Fantasia”, but more like hearing a large factory’s alarm from outside, with the kind of distortion that comes from an intentionally ridiculously loud noise as muffled by the walls of a building. Squeaky, high-pitched rhythms (a favoured sound for James in faster tracks), is the trade-in for that alarm sound’s patient repetitions, as well as another of the full-on, hard beats (think “Astroblaster” above), with four-on-the-floor, but done with the drop of a boulder on concrete. The strike of grinding on metal alternates beats, while it all eventually mutates into an aggressive, clatter of pounding on thin metal trays in a rather catchy and appealing way.
Making it only appropriate that these are the two James releases I’m going to cover, the compilation closes with the “Hardcore Mix” of “We Are the Music Makers”, from SAW85-92. Let’s be honest: while it may have been James’s sense of humour to tell us one of his big pop star remixes was an unrelated track he had laying around, passed on because he was caught offguard by the deadline (the man has also said he checks our records by “smelling the grooves”, and that he used a goat to help create Drukqs, and that it was most helpful after he got it a “hoof mod”), this would not be surprising as an approach for him. The only connection here is that of Gene Wilder’s sampled voice, speaking that same line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams…” The beat itself is another hard one, four-on-the-floor accented with a secondary beat between the third and fourth. The focal point is a rhythmic brushing sound, as of stiff bristles taken back and forth across a floor, but clipped free of any higher pitches. A yawning, distorted buzz falls repeatedly in the background, keeping the pace of the track not quite so fast as the fully rhythmic portions would imply.
I’m normally not one for house or trance or any of the more repetitive strains of electronic music, simply because it seems like the repetition is intended to maintain danceability–a sound that can be appealing for its consistency, but that, as a focal point, doesn’t build for active listening unless done with that in mind (or because the artist in question likes to do so anyway). James’s Caustic Window material isn’t an exception to the style, really, but it does keep things interesting, as James may DJ for shows (and did then, too), but he’s also made it clear that music seems to be more of a listening interest to him than a dancing one. I think, then, that this reflects in how he puts even house-based tracks together. It is more repetitive, to be sure, and is not my favourite of his material, but that’s honestly not saying much when this is the artist in question. It is a bit odd that my collection of his work on vinyl is exclusively his analogue-produced material (this, SAW85-92, Analogue Bubblebath 3, and the Analord series of releases he did in 2005 on a return to that kind of equipment from his computer-based work in the preceding decade or so). Still, his work in electronics (I think we can believe that one, as well as his claims to modifying the equipment himself)  makes the material unique within the framework of the genres and styles the material falls into.
Just don’t go into this expecting free, easy, happy kinds of stuff. There are better releases from him for that kind of thing–but getting this kind of hard, harsh, rough stuff from him, this is probably the top.
  • Next Up: Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood