die Angel – “Live in Austin” – [Erototox Decodings]

Max Level   6/15/2022   12-inch, A Library

Two side-long drone pieces, recorded in Austin TX in 2019. This long-running duo (Ilpo Vaisanen of Pan Sonic and Dirk Dresselhaus of Schneider TM) use electronics, prepared guitar, and effects to create their mildly tense ‘instant compositions.’ Side A has a slightly rough, buzzing quality and Side B is somewhat the same except it has a subdued electronic beat layer during most of it. Nice.

Toned – “Toned” – [Self Released]

Max Level   5/9/2022   CD, Jazz

An electroacoustic dream with nightmare attached. Make sure you are firmly strapped in for this one. East bay trio Toned slices and dices everything within reach, mixing and matching the sounds of outside jazz, noise, spoken word, loud ambient tone layers, crazy crashing percussion, electronic blurts, etc etc etc—-basically more things than I can name—into a hyperactive, blinding, deafening, audio assault that defies description. Sometimes sounds like unrelated tracks of noisy playing piled on top of each other, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad way to do things. Track 10 bursts out of the speakers like some unholy rampaging monster come to life.

Bischoff, John – “Bitplicity” – [Artifact Recordings]

Max Level   5/9/2022   A Library, CD

Electronic composer Bischoff has a sound and approach all his own: It’s all about events—-‘sound’ events disrupting the silence, and ‘silence’ events disrupting the sounds. Random and non-random events occurring. There is often quite a bit of negative space in his compositions, as the performer and his gear decide in real time what moves to make next. Much interaction between man and machine takes place during live performance. Whenever I listen to Bischoff’s work, which I have spent a great deal of time doing over the past 20 years, the feeling I get is controlled unpredictability. This excellent CD contains performances recorded at Mills College in 2020-21, live with no overdubs.

Years – “Rats” – [Self-release]

Max Level   4/17/2022   12-inch, A Library

Noisy rock out of Oakland, with bluesy, folky, and country touches. Singer-songwriter Kyle Ranson fronts an honest-sounding, solid-but-not-overly-polished band that gets the point across. Slide guitar all over the place. Some harmonica. Reminds me of American Music Club but friendlier. Songs are around 2 to 4 minutes in length. Totally enjoyable.

Nihil Communication – “Live: The Lab In San Francisco 12 Nov 2011” – [Danvers State Recordings]

Max Level   4/17/2022   A Library, Cassette

One 22-minute track of atmospheric sound-noise-scape. For this live 2011 performance, Andre Custodio’s solo project Nihil Communication expanded into a quartet lineup including members of other projects such as Conure, Sutekh Hexen, and Neurosis. I hear laptops, microphones, and instruments such as flute and guitar in the mix. The dynamics vary from medium quiet to medium noisy. Nothing harsh or scary, though—just intriguing caverns of sound created by people who know how to do this stuff.

Guinea Pig – “The New Neighbors” – [Edgetone Records]

Max Level   4/4/2022   CD, Jazz

Guinea Pig is a jazz quartet that formed in 1995 and has finally released their second album. Recorded live in 2019 at the SF Musicians Union Hall. The lineup is Timothy Orr–drums/percussion, Rent Romus–saxophones, Robert Kuhlmann–electric bass, and Tony Passarell–saxophone and cornet. Six pieces of solid outside jazz, ranging from around 4 to 7 minutes in length. Check out the cool blowing-two-saxes-at-once action. Orr on drums really propels this group. Nothing I don’t dig about this.

Thollem – “Obstacle Illusion” – [Astral Spirits]

Max Level   4/4/2022   A Library, CD

Thollem’s imagination continues to astound. Four lengthy pieces here: Tracks 1 and 4 are solo piano inventions that cover a lot of unpredictable ground; Tracks 2 and 3 are tumultuous electronic pieces performed on his trusty Korg Wavestate keyboard. As a master of every musical style on this planet and beyond, his technique is brilliant and seemingly effortless. Much respect for that. But the way he jumps from one idea to another, one musical voice to another, and somehow makes all the passages flow together like they belong together—that’s what puts him in a class of his own. He NEVER seems to be out of ideas. And I mean good ones. All material recorded live in Italy, late 2021. No overdubs.

Insect Factory and Rambutan – “Radio Frequencies” – [Tape Drift Records]

Max Level   3/15/2022   A Library, CD

Long, involved constructions of drone and sound and noise and sometimes melody. Not quite like anything I have heard before—they seem to be speaking a musical language all their own. The first track is a mind-bending 33-minute journey that is difficult to describe, both pleasing and challenging to the ear as things evolve into other things and then into other things. The other two tracks aren’t nearly as long but their gestures are similar. All three are trips well worth taking.

Made to Measure – Volume 1 [coll] – [Crammed Discs]

Max Level   3/15/2022   A Library, CD

A remastered 2021 collection of mid-1980s recordings by four artists/bands (Minimal Compact, Benjamin Lew, Aksak Maboul, and Tuxedomoon) that were used as soundtracks to various films, plays, dance performances, and fashion exhibitions back in the day. A few of the tracks have a decidedly 1980s flavor and there’s nothing wrong with that. The material is pleasantly moody throughout and a lovely listen. Vocals on Tracks 2 and 3—–all other tracks are instrumental. Tracks 8 through 11 are short solo piano vignettes and they sound very nice played together as a suite.

Alex Zethson Ensemble – “Some of Them Were Never Unprepared” – [Relative Pitch Records]

Max Level   3/7/2022   A Library, CD

I read somewhere that Alex Zethson considers this music to be influenced by both gamelan and krautrock, and I definitely hear that. It’s easy to get lost in this music while it’s playing. The two tracks are long, rhythmic, and hypnotic—-minimal pieces using the complex instrumentation of a 13-piece ensemble. Part One (17:00) is a constant banging on what seems to be mostly prepared pianos and metal percussion instruments, with a double-time section toward the end. Part Two (16:22) takes a couple of minutes to get going, and from then on it’s a sublime build-up from a low throb to a raging crescendo of violins, cellos, basses, pianos, drums, and guitars. Really really cool stuff.

Dewar, Andrew Raffo – “Ekphrasis Suite” – [Rastascan Records]

Max Level   3/7/2022   CD, Jazz

Thoughtful, spacious compositions by soprano saxophonist Dewar, working here with three stalwarts of the Bay Area improv/new music scene: Kyle Bruckmann on oboe/English horn, Gino Robair on percussion/vibraphone, and John Shiurba on acoustic/electric guitars. The four have worked together previously under the name Interactions Quartet. On this release, four visual artworks (reproduced in the CD package) are interpreted musically by the ensemble. This gives each of the four pieces (which range from 10 to 16 minutes in length) a distinctly different flavor from the others. Overall, the music is a bit spacey but never disjointed. Recorded in 2014, but not released until 2021.

Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble – “Toupee Made of Weather” – [BUFMS]

Max Level   2/15/2022   A Library, CD

Here we go again. I can’t even. This aggregation seemingly drops a new batch of twisted collage every two weeks or so. You can’t really call it music. Well you could but why would you? Random dialog, sound effects, manipulations, sort-of music. Everything taken completely out of context and assembled in new contexts that defy comprehension. Brain-bending as usual.

Bush Tetras – “Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of The Bush Tetras” – [Wharf Cat Records]

Max Level   2/14/2022   A Library, CD

Long-running NY quartet active on and off (mostly on) for around 40 years. One of the early (1979-80) No Wave bands, they started with a sparse downtown funk sound and developed more of a dramatic rock sound with beefier guitars as the years went by. Pat Place (guitar), Cynthia Sley (vocals), and Dee Pop (drums) were the constant members—-original bassist Laura Kennedy passed away in 2011. RIP. I was familiar with much of their early material but by about 1990 or so I had lost touch with what they were up to. So I’m happy to have gotten caught up somewhat courtesy of this retrospective, gathering the best of the band’s work from start to finish. The most recent material here was recorded 2017-19. The tracks are all compelling and a blast to listen to. Highly recommended!!!

Weston, G. Calvin – “Hydrogen 77” – [Self Released]

Max Level   2/8/2022   CD, Jazz

Super fresh, atmospheric jazz fusion from drummer Weston working in a trio format with fellow Philadelphians Richard Hill on bass, and Colton Weatherston on guitar. Impeccable musicians, all of them. Nimble, creative bass and drums keep this thing moving while spacy, unpredictable guitar lines (always with stereo delay effect) float on top. Bassist Hill is new to me, and I really dig his active interplay and funk exchanges with Weston, straight up a master drummer who is never afraid to drop in a ferocious accent when the time is right. The sounds are sometimes reminiscent of the late-80s trio Power Tools, a project I absolutely loved. Track 11 features a couple of guests on electronics and spoken word, with only Weston’s powerful drumming as accompaniment. Your head needs to hear this CD.

Pancakes, The – “Mokele Goes to Town” – [Kerntonschall Records]

Max Level   1/24/2022   12-inch, A Library

This German trio has been around since the mid-90s, playing what founder/guitarist Rainer Neeff calls “krautsurf with grunge and 60s psychedelic garage music.” A lot going on there, but I must say it’s a pretty good description of their sound. The band claims influences as varied as The Seeds, Jefferson Airplane, Sonic Youth, Dick Dale, and Dead Moon, among others. Many flavors on this 2019 double LP release—we hear shorter tracks in a sort of surf/garage rock vein as well as longer trippy psychedelic excursions in the 13 to 14 minute range. The tracks that are somewhere in between are the ones that really caught my ear—long enough to go somewhere but not completely overboard. Neeff and his sister Daniela, who plays bass, do the vocals. If you dig FUZZTONES and WAH WAHS, this is for you.

Alma Maru – “Alma Maru” – [Daft Alliance]

Max Level   1/24/2022   A Library, CD

Tense, pulsating drones with jagged edges. Multi-layered repeating patterns and glitchy things consumed by feedback and dirty electronics. Not pleasant but not unpleasant. The nine tracks, ranging from about 2 minutes to about 7 minutes in length, have no beginnings or ends—each track barges in abruptly to take over from the previous. Alma Maru is Nathan Berlinguette and Ryan Unks.

Chaudhary, Amanda – “Meow Meow Band” [CatSynth Records]

Max Level   1/3/2022   A Library, CD

Good-natured, jazzy electronic pop from Bay Area mover and shaker Chaudhary and a talented cast of players. The first track is a mysterious invocation of some kind that sounds very different from the rest of the tracks, which tend to be bright and uptempo. Chaudhary’s keyboards and synths are the backbone of these tunes, some of which also feature nice saxophone work by Steve Adams of ROVA. The rhythm section (Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass guitar and G. Calvin Weston on drums) shines throughout. Tracks 3 and 5 are instrumentals and track 6 is mostly so. Those are the tracks I prefer.

Koh, Emily – “Wordplays” – [Innova/American Composers]

Max Level   12/7/2021   A Library, CD

Five pieces by this Atlanta-based composer: two for solo saxophone (baritone and soprano) and three for saxophone quartet, performed here by the New Thread Quartet. Koh’s music typically explores the intricacies and details of sound, and these pieces can be characterized that way; they tend to be on the quieter side with plenty of space and silence. Track 1 is probably my favorite, with the baritone sax sometimes approaching what might be called drones and spending much of its time in the higher registers. Interesting, varied, well-played compositions that are definitely worth a listen or two or three.

Xiu Xiu – “Plays The Music of Twin Peaks” – [Polyvinyl Record Company]

Max Level   11/7/2021   12-inch, A Library

This stunning album originally came out in 2016, re-released now on its fifth anniversary with a bonus track (or more accurately a download code for a bonus track.) If you know the music from the Twin Peaks series you will of course recognize many of the themes here. The music is haunting, desolate, tense, and unnerving just as you would expect. Xiu Xiu—these days the lineup is pretty much just Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo, with percussive contributions from Shayna Dunkelman—reimagine Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack with all manner of keyboards, percussion, a howling guitar or two, sound effects, and Stewart’s distinctively off-kilter vocals. The final track on Side D features Seo reading a diary entry full of sex and fear and murder and it doesn’t do much for me; however it does seem worthy of inclusion and some may enjoy it. All of the other tracks are top notch, and the album flows beautifully. The bonus track is more musically aggressive than the rest of the album and the vocals on it are by Maestro Badalamenti himself.

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