Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Rolling 10: Monstrance - Monstrance

The cover art may suggest Monstrance is Moonshine Records's latest attempt at PLUR-bot branding of a new dance club genre name called "Monster Trance." However, it's not only a reference to the highly adorned object associated with Eucharistic practices, but also the debut self-titled release by the collaboration of XTC's Andy Partridge, ex XTC keyboardist and ex Shriekback frontman Barry Andrews, and ex Shriekback drummer Martyn Baker.

If you are at least interested in XTC, this release is certainly exciting if not odd news. Barry Andrews was the keyboardist who had only been in the band for their first two albums, White Music and Go 2, released in 1978. His brief tenure in the band signified a distinct phase, primarily because Andrews's rapid and occasionally free-form playing stood out like an odd tentacle in the music. However, the presence of odd keyboard sounds is what allowed XTC to be considered cross-Atlantic peers of Devo and Talking Heads.

Andrews left XTC around the completion of Go 2, as he had.. well, I'll just quote the man himself from the liner notes to the Coat Of Many Cupboards box set, released in 2002:

"[...] Suffice to say the short version is that with the innocent megalomania 22 years I had decided it would best serve the general good if XTC became a Platform for my Thought and Vehicle-for-my-Unique-Personality. Not unreasonably, Andy [Partridge] was reluctant to take up this opportunity and battle (or rather both of us plotting and bitching) commenced. Democracy, man - good for the People - musicians just aren't ready for it."

And here was Andy's side of the story, also quoted from Coat Of Many Cupboards:

"[...] I was the little bastard who went to Virgin and said 'Look he's written all these songs and is insisting we record them. It's going to take the XTC sound down a different road too quickly. Can't we just limit him to two songs?' What a frightened little bunny I was. Here was my childhood dream of being in a pop group, driven by me, just taking off, and now the new boy in the band wanted to grab the controls and fly it to a different place. I admit, I was a selfish shit, especially as the songs Barry had written were actually very good. I didn't want my winter palace stormed thank you."


It's over 25 years later. Unsurprisingly, Andy and Barry have long settled their differences. XTC's history since Barry's initial departure is a book itself -- literally. And XTC's history continues from there. Amazon.com recently conducted a net-cast interview with Andy Partridge in November of 2006 as part of their "Music You Should Hear" series of broadcasts. You can read the transcript, or you can link to the actual broadcast from Amazon's current Monstrance link. In brief, XTC may be no longer. According to the previous broadcast and a news item from Pitchfork Media in February of 2007 (via a Partridge interview on WNYC), Colin Moulding, the only original member of the group aside from Andy, has apparently retired from music altogether. Unless Colin has a change of heart later, XTC is history.

Andy has been quite busy for the past few years nonetheless, mostly concentrating on his anthology of demo material for XTC, all collected last year in The Official Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album box set.

Regarding recent adventures more disconnected from "the XTC sound" and venturing into more "difficult" territory, Andy has collaborated with ambient composer Harold Budd on the 1994 release Through The Hill. Later, Andy would work with ex Slapp Happy member and underground cartoonist Peter Blegvad on the 2003 spoken word/experimental album Orpheus - The Lowdown.

Monstrance, however, is the first experiment of which Andy has taken part that has involved another ex-member of XTC. So then! Is this even a slight return to the quirky/jerky days of White Music? Hell no.

Monstrance certainly flaunts the inspirations upon both which Andy and Barry exhibited over their respective careers: Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, King Crimson, Henry Cow, and other sources of atmospheric avant-garde, not discounting a lot of jazz influences. There's nothing uncharted here. The double-CD -- the result of culling the best 90 minutes out of nearly a day's worth of recorded improvised, unprepared, and non-overdubbed material -- is quite a sprawl. No doubt a first listen isn't going to be sweet.

Nothing here gets to William Hooker or John Zorn levels of explosive free-form noise, and neither does it lazily hover in staidness.

Monstrance's strength is its rawness and clarity. No doubt, anyone who has followed XTC's career is going to expect heavily overdubbed and orchestrated work, so hearing Andy with just a guitar and few effects to play with is harrowing -- and that's a good thing! The man's guitar talents have always been overshadowed by his arrangements, understandably. But it's really refreshing to hear him play out his more challenging sounding facets, without necessarily forcing it in your face. "Chaingang" and "Ur Tannoy" are great examples of this.

Barry's playing has no resemblence to the playing he did back in 1978. Only for moments do the occasional highly dissonant synth-scrapes, like on "Torturetainment", bring that era to mind. However, he mostly plays it cool, but never rests. He'll often switch from ambient presets to basic piano presets to simulated prepared piano presets within the same stretch of material, without the transition sounding jarring ever. It's stating the obvious, but Barry's an accomplished keyboardist, and this release is yet another showcase for it.

Martyn's drumming is the perfect rhythmic accompaniment to both Andy and Barry -- whenever the music is rhythmic. When not, his drum fills are perfect as well. Martyn deserves the spotlight on most of the material here, in fact.

The guys may have claimed to not have any plans or preparation before recording, and maybe this just comes with age, but there's never a moment where one member is trying to butt into the front of the mix via volume or "lick" wars. This trait of Monstrance couldn't have gone undiscussed, right?

Alright, alright, just a sampling here, but without further ado...


Here's a promotional video for the track "Winterwerk", directed by Mitch Keen. "Winterwerk" may be the most obvious Fripp-Eno offering in the collection, and hence great for backing music for every National Public Radio show you can imagine. And yeah, there is something too "new age"-y about this video, but this is good stuff as far as watching the guys in action. Martyn's the man now dog, ur, here.

(Yeesh. I know I know, "Youtube comments lol", but still..)

Even though Monstrance represents less than 10% of the full sessions for this album, the 2-CD is still a lot to absorb. There might have been an involved process in the sequencing of these two discs. Or perhaps not. That said, I've honestly gotten more out of Monstrance by transferring the material on both discs to *ahem* another playback medium and then toggling "shuffle." I highly recommend doing the same.

Why does it have to be so difficult for a listener to be able to experiment with the listening experience of recorded experimental music itself? Mainstream pop releases now release deluxe editions often with instrumental versions, a cappella versions, and perhaps other backing tracks. Experimental music often has wacky packaging but (Warning: crass pop-ist generalizations to follow) ends up being just a compact disc or slab of vinyl with really long songs that one has to endure -- at least if there are no consumable vices available to help out. Capitalism vs. Music For The People aside, who's really being more experimental here?

Fah! Anyway... as Andy, Barry, and Martyn came into making Monstrance without a plan and having a grand ol' time with it, why not do the same on the receiving end while the opportunity is there?


And our first entry into The Rolling Ten of Oh-Seven! It's a modest experiment that's more enjoyable with each listen, even if there's nothing groundbreaking here. My socks are still on my feet, nonetheless. #3 it is!

Top 10 of 2007 so far...

3. Monstrance - Monstrance

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The Passion of the Top 10 of 2007. Oh Christ.


In the next two months or so, I'll be reviewing albums released since the beginning of the year that will fit into a good mid-year Top 10.

Starting in July, new albums that get reviewed and enter this rolling Top 10 will have to force another out of the ring! However, one never knows if an album that was ousted may come back from behind with a metal folding chair in the eleventh hour. One thing is for sure: There will only be 10 alive by New Year's Eve!

The bloodythirsty arena...



Throughout this coming June, I'll be revisiting the previous two years' "June Gloom" mix CD-Rs that were done in 2005 and 2006, followed by a third installation for 2007.

Basically, prepare for a lot of posts and links and fun. Don't be surprised if I invite Sanjaya as a guest blogger. (He, um, may or may not be a local acquaintance.)

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Remembering Hating Brenda

At this point, I have as much interest in wanting to study the seeds of ironic embrace of pop culture as I do wanting to cough into a petri dish and see what grows. However, for those who are interested, you will likely find yourself making a pitstop to check out the odd and rewarding history of Los Angeles based 'zine-turned-magazine Ben Is Dead.

Ben Is Dead -- started by Darby Romeo -- was very much ahead of its time. Long before magazines like Vice or Blender came along to aggressively market themselves as great ways to pass time reading the printed clash of pop culture trivia and the underground of past and present while doing one's business on the can, Ben Is Dead had already carved that niche. However, you could read Ben Is Dead much like you could have a conversation with the staff who produced it, which made the magazine quite unique and enjoyable -- even if you thought the hit/miss ratio wasn't incredible. Vice and Blender are, in each its own way, uni-directional and over-confrontational. I don't know anyone who has fallen in love with Vice or Blender. Many lucky enough to have access fell in love with Ben Is Dead, including myself. And reading one issue would easily exhibit why. Ben Is Dead never left out the love or the bile, often on the same page. There was something immediately identifiable.

Ben Is Dead wrote often about Beverly Hills 90210. It's entirely possible they may have been responsible for the U.S. underground's fascination with the show -- despite musical appearances by The Meat Puppets (doing "Attacked By Monsters") and The Flaming Lips (doing "She Don't Use Jelly") playing "live" at the beginning and near the end of the show's run, respectively. (And the rumor stating members of Pavement having a fight with a 90210 cast member on the set, squashing the former's chances of being that elusive first rock band on the 90210 pilot, was just that.)

90210-mania was growing, as was Ben Is Dead's obsession, eventually spawning the infamous I Hate Brenda newsletter.

Harnessing the popularity of the 90210 faithfuls across the world, especially those who despised Shannon Doherty's character Brenda Walsh, the Ben Is Dead squad gained a stampede of new readers beyond their dreams. 1993 saw the release of The 'I Hate Brenda' Book, written by Michael Carr and Ben Is Dead head Darby. That year also saw the release of the whole point of this entire entry:

Rump - Hating Brenda - (1993)

"Rump" was an agglomeration of Los Angeles creators, obviously featuring Ben Is Dead staff but also local rock bands and luminaries that were part of Loyola Marymount University radio station KXLU 88.9FM in Los Angeles. Ironically, that album cover was concocted in the comode of neighboring University of California, Irvine college radio station KUCI 88.9FM in Orange County, CA. (Geek Confessional: I was there. No kidding. I even contributed some of the anti-Brenda graffiti waaay in the back behind "Brenda"'s cigarette.)

Hating Brenda, released on Caroline Records, was just a fun audio peripheral to the whole anti-Brenda mania which Ben Is Dead rode like a prize rodeo champ. It was an eight-track compact disc of various songs, ranging from dance music, rock, and noise all venerating that halo of bile that hovered over Brenda Walsh and nothing more.

On a relisten, however, at least half the record -- much like Ben Is Dead -- was quite ahead of its time!

  • Jonmark & Rump - "Who is Brenda? (six six six mix)" [3:56 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1993

  • Who is Jonmark?

    Who cares! "BREN DA BREN DA BR-BR-BR BREN DA" over and over, please. This track was initially penned to be "grunge rave" or "grave" music as part of the album's press release. There's no "grunge" in the track at all, however this is a great slab of early Prodigy-esque hardcore rave music with grittier sounding bass synth. Perhaps only Angelenos might remember the very brief year that MARS-FM graced the southern California airwaves with this type of dance music exclusively, once featuring DJ Don Bolles (yes, that Don Bolles) during his more adventurous "All Night Truck Driving" radio show. "Who is Brenda?" might have been a reaction to the MARS-FM stereotype which quickly developed.

  • Rump - "Brenda Can't Dance To This" [5:28 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1993

  • OK. Not only is this clearly the greatest track on Hating Brenda, it's a flat-out ignored dance club classic, period. No track from a decade prior would so succinctly foreshadow DFA Records fodder -- and I say this as a current fan of DFA records. The beginning symphonic ambience gives way to flanged-out muddled disco beats and the entrancing, whispered "Brenda Can't Dance To This" chant just before the tasty disco bass-line fades in, and the sloppy Spanish sung verses bring it on non-stop. It's a spacey slab of fun for feet. It's shocking that this track got passed over by everyone much less anyone.

    Do yourself a favor and give this track the beloved 14-year anniversary party it deserves. The spirits of Ben Is Dead would thank you. Brenda would still hate you, though, but, like, who cares about Brenda?

  • Rump - "Choot'er" [4:10 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1993

  • Most memorable for the "Brenda gotta big ol' butt" "sample", "Choot'er" was the token gangsta lick on Hating Brenda. It's not as enjoyable or replayable as "Who is Brenda?", much less "Brenda Can't Dance To This". However, for the few of you who, like myself, appreciated the New England hip-hop fucktards Hawd Gankstuh Rappuhs MC's Wid Gatz, you might have an idea what "Choot'er" foreshadowed.

I promise to mine, ur, "serious" stuff in the near future as well, but I figure that -- with the Big Audio Dynamite Revival Deluxe already accelerating toward us like fallout from a big ol' dirty bomb, and many bands wanting to revive the likes and sounds of Gaye Bikers On Acid or Pop Will Eat Itself but with a blurry boring sheen (Hello, Klaxons!) -- you might want to seek shelter with something that might make you smell, I mean, smile on occasion. OK, no more fun allowed. Time for homework.

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