It’s been a while since a true vinyl record review has appeared on this blog, and what better time to start an ongoing series on Independent Ethos than … whenever (or when you, dear reader, might just be sick of all the year-end lists?). I own many albums collected over my 20 years of writing about music that I believe still hold up to this day (and there have been many purges over the years). Since I began writing about music in the early nineties as a freelance music journalist, many albums came out that I regret never having had the opportunity to review. Some I discovered much later, others I just never wrote about but still continue to give me listening pleasure, never going out of style in their timeless quality. These are records I would consider both touchstones of a certain era but that also exist beyond their time and should be considered classics.

One musical movement born in the early nineties that still continues to this day is post-rock (see my review for Mogwai’s last album). Fusing elements as diverse as jazz, electronic, rock and even hardcore, this mostly instrumental form of music was one of the few true original movements that defied simple pigeonholing during that decade. When music critics began banding about the term— short for postmodern rock— it even ruffled the feathers of some of the low-key pioneers of the genre. They preferred anonymity to stage presence. They started no fashion trends (flannel? Screw that, T-shirts and cargo shorts do fine). They had minimal lighting on stage and never encouraged audience participation. In fact, their music was anti-audience-friendly. The bands often took odd left turns in their music, exploring intense dynamics that sometimes forced the listener to reach for the volume knob, to either raise it for a closer listen to the more hushed passages or lower it during the more intense moments that could pounce with little warning.

One album in particular marked the height of the post-rock scene: Tortoise’s 1996 album Millions Now Living Will Never Die released by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). I stumbled across a vinyl copy at my local indie record haunt, Sweat Records, at a great price. $25? Better than I thought I would ever make out paying for this record now long out of print. It was only the Chicago-based outfit’s second full-length release, but it has come to epitomize the post-rock sound. When I first bought the CD version of this album soon after its release, it was while following the influences of Stereolab, whose key members (Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen) were featured on the acknowledgements page but otherwise had little presence on the album:

Stereolab had appeared on the scene during the revival of fifties and sixties Bachelor Pad style, or “lounge,” music, which is probably best recognized today in the style and ambiance of the “Mad Men” television series. The London-based band released an EP in 1993 entitled The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” on their own UK-based label Duophonic Records (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl reissue on Amazon.com). Despite jazz influences like Martin Denny, Stereolab also heavily incorporated noisy elements of Krautrock. The record is probably best compared to the droning sounds of bands like Faust and Neu!, despite the title’s sly reference to the music of Denny and Juan Garcia Esquivel*. The electronic burbles of the Moog synthesizer and the presence of analog keyboards like the Farfisa also figure heavily on the EP. That same year, Tortoise released its debut EP “Mosquito” on Torsion Music (see the Tortoise discography). However, to my delight, Tortoise were indeed another animal from Stereolab. There was a mutual DNA in the abstract, noisy influences of the guitar-based bands of Krautrock. Often regarded as the band’s figurehead, Tortoise drummer and producer John McEntire would later produce several of Stereolab’s future works.

Though McEntire, a classically trained percussionist, often received credit as the band’s leader (maybe because the credits on Millions begins with his name as producer), the band began with bassist Douglas McCombs, who played in Eleventh Dream Day before Tortoise, and multi-instrumentalist/drummer John Herndon, formerly of the Poster Children. I was a fan of those two bands at the time, as well, but their albums of that era sound dated in comparison to the otherworldly groove and din of Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The collaboration of McCombs and Herndon started the seeds that would form Tortoise, which began as a studio experiment. McEntire came in soon after, along with guitarist Bundy K. Brown after meeting while working with David Grubbs in Bastro (Grubbs and McEntire would continue working together in Gastr del Sol, when that band’s songwriting took a more atmospheric and experimental turn, creating amazing music of the era in its own right). But Brown departed after Tortoise’s self-titled debut album. Slint bassist and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist in his own right David Pajo stepped in to replace Brown. Finally, forming the core group that recorded this album, is percussionist Dan Bitney who found himself in the band in its early beginnings after the hardcore band Tar Babies broke up (see Tortoise’s bio on the All Music Guide).

I have recently been playing Millions Now Living Will Never Die on my turntable, a luxury that was not available to me in my college years, and this vinyl sample I found at Sweat has proved an amazing revelation. Despite having some worn corners to the jacket, the vinyl inside sounds near pristine. It came complete with the insert featuring the track-listing and acknowledgements shown above. Most importantly, however, it offers a super clean sound. Besides, finding this years-old release with worn corners is inevitable, as the jacket is made from a very soft cardboard material, unique to the release, a material I have otherwise not seen used on LP jackets. If you have the CD, it’s the same soft, flimsy stuff.

Speaking of the cover art, the swirling silver fish on a duo-toned blue background offers an appropriate visual representation of the majestic soundscapes inside. The album evokes not only wide spaces but depths that capture some of the more sublime aspects of the Tortoise sound. Like the band’s self-titled debut, which had some mumbled words on one track, this album only has one track with barely discernible human voices. It’s all about abstraction. The only thing evocative of intelligible language are the track titles**.

The album opens with the daring, 21-minute “Djed” (pronounce “Jed,” as some of the band members once told me), a track that seems to come up and out of the profundity of the ocean. A dark throbbing bass, accompanied by the churning, almost muffled explosive sounds of a super-reverbed stick beat kicks off the piece. A subtle vibraphone accompanies the bass-driven melody. The wash of effects and reverb that affect the music makes it feel as though the music exists in a weightless space, like the currents that travel through, over and under one another throughout the expanse of the ocean. About two minutes in, electronics whistle and crunch, as organs swell from the depths of the din to overtake the piece, and a decidedly brighter and warmer feel takes over. It’s almost a comforting relief from the dense beginning of the track.

As luscious organ hums fill the track, about three minutes in, a true drum kit appears to propel the piece along, as the bass, more felt than heard, is joined by the low melody of a guitar that seems to offer a syncopated contrast to the drum bashing. Tortoise  - Millions  Now Living Will Never Die vinyl - Side 1 label.  Photo by Hans Morgenstern.The bass throbs below the mix of organs, on a mechanical drumbeat that owes its debt to Krautrock stalwarts Neu! Layers of different melodies wander into slight solos, but always return to a uniform groove, as the track continues. For Tortoise, even melodious instruments can take on the rhythmic properties of drums. Meanwhile, beats can morph into melodies. It can sound busy, but the repetitious drones of the passages will catch the close listener by surprise. The music constantly intrigues, always offering layer upon layer of abstract musicality, as the instrumental trots along offering various transformations in tone.

As instruments fall away at about the 10-minute mark, a hyper metallic pulse that seems spawned on a digital device fades in. There’s a buzz and the first beat seems to go dead, and a second beat phases the track into a slower pace. Marimba rumble in the almost inaudible distance (thank you vinyl and Bose headphones for the tiny detail that I otherwise never noticed). An analog organ offers a luscious, slow, churning melody, as a muffled, watery, reverb-effected guitar offers a rhythmic hook. More melodies are spread over the rhythmic melody as rapid marimba, vibes and bells are offered one layer after another. Again, the band explores tonal shifts in rhythms. A fit here, a squeeze there, a return to rhythm, until, at just before the 14-minute mark, during what sounds like the split-second collapse of a chord, something unsettling and completely out of the realm of instruments happens. It almost sounds like the skipping sounds of a CD (a technique later highly influential in the world of “glitch” music). The sudden, jarring deconstruction of the music pushes out all the melody to only leave struggling pulses and throbs that quiver and rumble, shaking off layers of luscious muck.

Tortoise  - Millions  Now Living Will Never Die vinyl - Side 1 and cover.  Photo by Hans Morgenstern.

The rumbles and squishy electronics continue and fade in and out as an ominous hum ebbs and retreats in what seems a calm undercurrent. Electronics zip and oscillate over the din, as the marimba return, fading in at around the 17-minute mark. They seem to hammer away at the din in a glorious calm of melody that brings to mind the great use of marimba by Stewart Copeland on the Rumble Fish soundtrack.*** The marimba fades away as a high-pitched, flat, slurred honking organ fades up, echoing the marimba melody. Meanwhile, the squishy electronic-affected rhythm swells then disappears to make way for another tonal shift, about a minute and a half later. The section comes to a rattling end. It makes way for a dragging, patient rhythm, and up from the ether bubbles up a melody the hums and buzzes like cables in the wind, offering the piece’s memorable refrain. This section of the “Djed” refrain is extraordinarily spaced out and almost unrecognizable. It sounds like pulses and throbs for the most part, but there is much hidden melody, as if it’s occurring in the waves on some distant horizon. There are calls and responses among these electrified melodies, sparking and echoing off one another as if they are distant, slow-moving lightning strikes, like “St. Elmo’s fire spitting ions in the ether.” And so ends Side 1, offering an incredible journey into the expansive possibilities of instrumentation few musicians dare explore with so much rhythm and melody but also frayed noise and chaos.

Here’s some bonus, watch the band re-create the piece in a video recorded on July 8, 2009, at KCRW’s studios for its ”Morning Becomes Eclectic” show:

The second side of Millions Now Living Will Never Die almost feels anticlimactic in comparison to “Djed.” However, even though these five shorter instrumental pieces that use similar instrumentation may feel tempered by comparison, they should not to be underestimated. The vinyl brings out the acoustic instrumentation of the first track on Side 2, “Glass Museum,” much better than I have ever heard on CD. Tortoise  - Millions  Now Living Will Never Die vinyl - Side 2 label.  Photo by Hans Morgenstern.That also means one can hear the electronic guitars crunching much crisper than on the CD. The piece begins slow and meandering, growing hushed to allow the distant swell and ebb of what sounds like a synthesizer, or maybe some warped string instrument, to howl high-pitched chords underneath the languorous guitars, sluggish drums and luscious vibes, which offer a celestial, skipping melody. Despite all that activity, what gives the piece its shiny glaze is that hum of the subtle high-pitched howl of a chord, which may not even be a synth or a string instrument but the slow exhale and inhale of a melodica, an instrument I have seen the band incorporate live. The wonderful mysterious quality of that decorative sound from an almost subliminal instrument is key to this track.

At around the two-minute mark the vibes and percussion pause for some other distant creature to hum and hoot from what sounds like a distance, while the guitar is calming strummed. Before you are given a chance to figure out what that is, the song returns with the drifting marimba and guitar. Like “Djed,” this track also has the feel of the ocean, and stirs up into a storm of noise about halfway through as congas and marimba pile up and drive the piece on a frenetic impressive shift in tone as an electric guitar crunches along. But this explosion of frenzy soon comes to a grinding halt, with on last, exhausting crunch of the electric guitar. The shift is handled gorgeously as the section melts back into the calm it opened with: a sparkling marimba melody with the contrast of a buzzing synth for a few more refrains, until the piece comes to a reverberating stop.

You can hear the track for yourself (for the time being) with this YouTube clip, still you may be hard pressed to truly hear the subtle luscious quality of the array of instrumentation that come out so clear and colorful on the vinyl:

The next track, “a Survey,” feels more atmospheric. The piece is coated by the sound of crickets, as a rhythmically strummed bass offers the bottom to the quiet interplay of a sporadically licked guitar. The two stringed instruments play a sort of call and response between two channels. The strings seem to also release a metallic hum that drones along underneath the track. It carries on for less than three minutes until it simply fades away.

The third track on side 2, “the Taut and the Tame,” features a whipping beat with a sharp edge and also features the low-end, characteristic guitar work and accompanying Tortoise  - Millions  Now Living Will Never Die vinyl - insert.  Photo by Hans Morgenstern.marimba that seem to exemplify this album’s signature sound. The drums are inhumanly kinetic and sometimes seem to fray with electronic effects but never give way to full electronics, like so much of the music did back in the day of the album’s release, as house and breakbeat rave music seemed to have been petering out around that time.

The fourth track, “Dear Grandma and Grandpa,” finally seems to feature a voice, but it’s a young girl’s voice, seemingly coming from a distant dimension and another time, from somewhere unknown, as electronics lethargically pulse, hum and waver through the speakers. A man’s voice responds in an almost sing-song quality. All the while, electronics continue to pulse along and shimmer with shifting variety. It remains rhythmic yet chaotic but so hushed and relaxed that it never grows annoying. The distorted trill of a flute can be heard in the background, from what might be an old television set. It fades away and the bass offers one final, dreary melody with languorous drum and cymbal accompaniment. Here begins “Along the Banks of Rivers.” The track’s cool quality is brilliantly set up by the hushed cacophony of “Dear Grandma and Grandpa.” This track almost recalls the music of Ennio Morricone. Beyond the atmospheric hum of some organs, this is the most traditional of all the instrumentals on Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and makes a perfect album closer. If a sunset over the ocean needed a soundtrack, this piece would offer the best accompaniment.

Millions stands the test as not only a fine example of post rock but the art album that spawns vivid imagery and creates luscious atmosphere. Tortoise laughing circa 1996. Photo by James WardenThe musicians gel amazingly together, and a testament to that is the fact the band still exists, despite line up shifts, to release an album here and there, though all the members have other groups to occupy their time. Tortoise has since evolved to create albums that swing more concretely while also relying on electronics more than ever. But this album remains a true favorite. The analog quality of the instrumentation is downright primitive compared with today’s standards, but the fact the album sounds so vital will always stand as a tribute to the creative minds behind the instrumentation.

Up-date: Thrill Jockey reissued Milions Now Living Will Never Die on vinyl earlier this year, as part of its 20th anniversary, but it has already gone out of print. Other Tortoise albums remain in-print, however, including its masterful follow-up TNT as well as several long-out-of-print 90s-era Sea and Cake albums, McEntire’s other band. For those in Miami, Sweat Records received a shipment of these reissues and more just in time for this post (like them on Facebook).

If you live in Tortoise’s hometown of Chicago, Tortoise, the Sea and Cake as well as Man Forever will perform a free show on Dec. 20 (details here).

Hans Morgenstern

Notes:

*I had a chance to interview Esquivel for a lengthy profile piece in the record collector’s magazine, “Goldmine.” He had heard Stereolab’s EP but was quite perplexed with comparisons, as Stereolab were probably most influenced by the sounds of Krautrock, at least during that more noisy, droney period of their sound, which has since evolved to a more effervescent, poppy sound.

**I once interviewed Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker (he came in during the recording of the band’s third album, TNT) and Herndon. They explained they pull their track titles from whatever they might be reading. When they see phrases that interest them, they note them as possible titles.

***During my interview with them, Parker and Herndon both said they were fans of the Rumble Fish soundtrack. That interview might appear on this blog at some point. If it does, I will update this post with a link.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The National Weather Service had issued urban flood advisories and severe thunderstorm warnings for the night of Beach House’s return to Miami Beach, last night. But the real storm of note came from the wash of dream pop emanating from three diminutive souls surrounded by crates of light and smoke on the Fillmore Miami Beach stage at the Jackie Gleason Center.

At first entry through the doors, it seemed– as usual– the rain would be enough to keep local music fans home and dry. As about 100 people gathered around the stage and scattered themselves among the few seats behind the soundboard, a security guard commented how he had not seen such a weak turn out for a concert in about a year.

Though it looked grim, at first, the people did wing up showing up, trickling in at a gradual pace until the front of the pit actually felt stuffy and humid. Every 20th female or so wore a polka dot shirt, just like Beach House singer Victoria Legrand has in the past. Polka dots are also the image of choice on the Baltimore-based group’s up-coming album, Bloom (due May 15 [review coming soon]). By the time Zomes, aka Asa Osborne, guitarist of Lungfish, walked over to his single keyboard at the front of the stage, at around 9 p.m., the crowd had already grown antsy. However, they had to endure the minimalist assault of a humming old Casiotone for a half-hour or so, first.

Though some would find Zomes’ drones tiresome and even torturous, it actually provided a nice minimalist warm-up to Beach House. Osborne would noodle with repetitive, slow arpeggios with one hand while holding down a few keys in a sustained, rumbling hum with another. Meanwhile, a programmed drum track tapped out various slow rhythms. The droning music seemed to come from another world and time. It sounded as if it was made for the art galleries of Düsseldorf in the early 1970s, but barely anyone in attendance paid it any mind. People still chattered comfortably. Someone said something about the “drug war in Mexico.” Another person said, “I think about it all the time.” The vibrato drone of the old keyboard persisted. Every five minutes or so, Osborne would pause, the audience would applaud. Osborne would then offer a slightly different beat and play another lethargic melody. People would converse again. The applause grew more enthusiastic with the halting of every piece. Osborne would barely look up, much less say anything as he continued indulging in the din. During the last two numbers, people would audibly groan when he offered another canned beat and proceeded to press the keys again. He would say nothing and persist producing a magical, if under-appreciated minimal racket indebted to Philip Glass and early electro-Krautrock pioneers Cluster. It was creative in an almost Dadaist manner, but required much more patience to listen to than this audience cared to offer.

Osborne would stop just after 9:30 p.m. and walked off to polite applause. Four hulking rectangular crates were unveiled at some point on stage. Two of even height stood in the middle and two shorter ones on either side. They first looked like the striped black and white interior columns inside a Sephora store. The headline players came out to enthusiastic cheers and a low-lit stage. Legrand offered the slow ramble of the opening organ line to “Troublemaker,” and guitarist Alex Scally, sitting to her right, joined in on electric guitar on a dual note climb up his instrument’s neck. Legrand sang in a languorous, breathy voice, “Like a hand you reached out to me … The thunder rolls in with the dawn … Tiny fingers on the edges … Watch it unravel … pulling everything apart.” As Legrand starts sighing out breathy “ahhs,” drummer Daniel Franz, sitting to her left, offered a steady beat on a kit with cushioned drum mallets. It was five-minutes of ethereal musical bliss that portended well for the show.

As the band continued through several new songs from the yet-to-be-released Bloom, the columns behind it gradually revealed themselves as objects of depth. Behind horizontal slats of what looked like evenly spaced 2 x 4s, propellers slowly turned. An incandescent light shown through and billowing smoke puffed and jutted out in an incongruous amount of directions. Cones of light crisscrossed at odd angles and sometimes seemed to puff along to the music. It may have been an optical illusion, just as the layers of ringing guitars and humming organs, along with Legrand’s voice seem to create its own psycho-acoustic illusion of melodies that were not actually there. The music had a power beyond human and mechanical means, reliant on the music itself.

At one point, Legrand thanked the crowd for its patience, as Beach House performed all but one song off Bloom (two if you count the album’s hidden track). There were a few appearances of songs from the band’s prior release, Teen Dream (see the only I recorded that night above), as well and a couple of older tunes (see setlist below). But truly, the night belonged to Bloom. Though the band performed an encore with two older fan favorites, “Turtle Island” and “10 Mile Stereo,” it saved the clincher, “Irene,” for last. You could easily tell the band delighted in this song’s gradual, swelling dynamic, even though many in the audience had yet to familiarize themselves with it. Some audience members trickled out to beat the rush to the parking garage, as the song began. But this song made the whole night for this write, and no song in Beach House’s repertoire matches its minimalist slow-core grandeur. As it built up on Legrand’s steady pulsing organ chords and Scally’s quivering guitarcraft, Legrand would sing “It’s a strange paradise” every few bars between banging her luscious hair in twirls, until the music could not build anymore. A few messed up notes were easy to forgive for the passion the trio put into the performance of this amazing song.

This show marked the start of a grand tour that will continue late into the year. Judging from a mostly rapturous response, the band will do well as fans grow familiar with the music from Bloom, the group’s strongest release in its career.

Hans Morgenstern

Setlist:
Troublemaker
Other People
Norway
Walk in the Park
Wild
Lazuli
Silver Soul
Equal Mind
The Hours
New Year
Zebra
Wishes
Take Care
Myth

Encore
Turtle Island
10 Mile Stereo
Irene

Remaining tour dates (so far– more TBA):

05/09 – Orlando, FL @ Beacham Theater*
05/10 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live*
05/11 – Birmingham, AL @ The Bottletree*
05/12 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre*
05/13 – Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel*
05/15 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
05/23 – Brighton, UK @ The Haunt
05/24 – London, UK @ Village Underground
05/25 – Belgium, BE @ De Kreun
05/26 – Amsterdam, NL @ Melkweg
05/27 – Berlin, DE @ Volksbuhne
05/29 – Paris, FR @ Maronguinerie
05/31 – Dudingen, CH @ Bad Bonn Kilbi Festival
06/02 – Barcelona, ES @ Primavera Sound
06/03 – Montpellier, FR @ Le Rockstore
06/04 – Bordeaux, FR @ Theatre Barby
06/05 – Nantes, FR @ Stereolux
06/06 – Lyon, FR @ Epicrerie Moderne
06/07 – Blarritz, FR @ L’Atabal
06/08-09 – Porto, PT @ Optimus Primavera Sound
07/01 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues **
07/03 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre **
07/06 – Aspen, CO @ Belly Up Aspen **
07/07 – Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater **
07/09 – Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom **
07/10 – Lawrence, KS @ Liberty Hall **
07/11 – St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant **
07/12 – Memphis, TN @ Minglewood Hall **
07/13 – Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
07/15 – Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival
07/17 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue **
07/18 – Pontiac, MI @ The Crofoot Ballroom **
07/19 – Cleveland, OH @ House of Blues **
07/20 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall **
07/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre **
07/23 – New York, NY @ Central Park Summer Stage
08/31-09/02 – North Dorset, UK @ End of the Road Festival

* w/ Zomes

** w/ Wild Nothing

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If one misconception has plagued the man behind the expressionistic, retro-infused handle Ursula 1000 over his 10-plus-years of recording original music and spinning records as a club DJ it may be the notion that he cannot play an instrument. After all, he plays all the instruments on Mondo Beyondo, the latest record by his alter ego Ursula 1000, released on ESL Music, including drums, guitar, bass, organs and synthesizers. I first met him as a drummer in the Miami band 23. His life as a DJ and Ursula 1000 would come years later. Speaking via phone from his Williamsburg home in New York, he notes that for the first time in 10 years, he is working to put together a band for a small summer or fall US tour. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” he says. “Having played in 23 and stuff in Miami. I miss performing live.”

Though the Ursula 1000 band remains in the planning stages, it seems a longtime coming. He has released five albums under the alias, which pays tribute to iconic sixties actress Ursula Andress (she of the famed bikini in Dr. No) while also acknowledging the futuristic optimism of her heyday era in the quadruple digit tag. He has led a jet-setting lifestyle that has seen him touring the world as a DJ with appearances at giant music festivals and hip nightclubs since the late nineties.* His albums have a style that sounds like a pastiche of sixties pop music run through an electro-dance blender, leading to the notion that he is a sample-based DJ. “I think for me it would be a personal victory,” he says about performing live music, “so people would see that, yeah, this guy can actually play this stuff. There’s still people that see me touring as a DJ, but they know I have albums out. It’s hard for them to connect the dots, and they say, ‘So what is it that you do exactly?'”

What he does is weave together nostalgic sounds from the sixties, be it swinging, jazzy pop or psychedelic rock with modern sounds and some crazy dance beats. He walks me through a quick overview of his oeuvre. “The First two albums were the first two albums,” he says of 1999’s The Now Sound of Ursula 1000 and 2002’s Kinda’ Kinky. “Those were the ones that were very sixties-influenced, and there was some fifties, kind of Latin Cha-cha, mambo kind of elements.”

He followed them up with 2005’s Here Comes Tomorrow and 2009’s Mystics. “Then I started bringing in new wave influences that I loved and post punk and glam rock from the seventies and even sounds that were inspired by my DJ sets,” he says. “So I was very much making a record that was kind of listenable at home but also kind of DJ-friendly, too.”

Mondo Beyondo came out in August of last year. It seems to bring together the past and the present in the most organic way possible for an Ursula 1000 record. “With this one, I tried avoiding things like dub step and any flavor-of-the-month kind of rhythms,” he says. “I had been going back to some of my sixties roots, listening to garage rock and mod soul and all this kind of stuff. I was like, I’m just going to put something out that I want to hear. It wasn’t influenced by current trends, and I thought I may get total shit for this coz people may be thinking, ‘Oh, God, this guy is kinda living in the past,’ or kind of treading old ground, but surprisingly, reviews were very positive. It was nice to see that because I was expecting reviews to really rip me with it. With things like Pitchfork and these kind of trendsetter, taste-maker kind of people, if you’re not like this flavor-of-the-month kind of thing, like chillwave or something, or whatever the hell it’s called, then it’s [not cool] … I just want to do something that I really like and I really dig.”

Here’s the title track’s official video:

When it comes to music that he listens to, it runs a wide range of styles. But a lot of it moves forward while still acknowledging the past. He notes an appreciation for Seahawks, who he says, sound like yacht rock while also incorporating a dub influence, like the Orb. He has an affection for the work of Tame Impala, who he says have a warm, psychedelic soft rock sound. He also lauds Toy, a young band from England influenced by shoegaze music.

Though Gimeno counted himself a fan of shoegaze back in the early nineties (in fact he and his mates in 23 produced music that easily fit into that genre of dreamy, swirly music), he has recently fallen back in love with many of those bands. Just last month he compiled a mix of obscure shoegaze on his Soundcloud:

In fact, Gimeno says, he is on the way to completing an EP of original music that pays some respect to the genre and should see release this summer. He says the music is so far removed from an Ursula 1000 record, he has decided to release it under another alias: Impossible Objects. “I have this mini-LP almost done,” he says. “It’s not as eclectic as an Ursula 1000 record. This definitely sounds like it’s this one band playing this thing … I just love the droney guitar kind of stuff. It’s kind of a shoegazy, droney, space-rock guitar sort of thing, but there’s also heavy synthesizer work in it. So there’s also a Giorgio Moroder [influence], almost like John Carpenter, seventies horror soundtrack stuff,” he says with a laugh.

It marks an almost logical step for Gimeno, who just produced his most organic and flowing Ursula 1000 record to date. In fact, he says, this album originated from a more melodic instrument than the beats he is more accustomed to beginning a song with. “Since I’ve been playing a lot more guitar lately it’s been actually starting, in some cases, from riffs,” he says. “In the beginning, since drums were my main instrument, I used to start with rhythms, and now things have gotten a lot more melodic. I’ve been more confident with my playing, so now I can actually pick up a bass or guitar and actually work out a riff like a traditional band would.”

One guitar riff that stands out in Mondo Beyondo is the one that drives “Don’t Get Your Panties in a Bunch.” He says, “That lock grove, Krautrock-inspired, whatever you want to call it, I’ve always loved that. It’s funny because I didn’t get into Can or any of that stuff until way after the fact. I got into people like Stereolab, you know, like people who were emulating that stuff after the fact.”

Speaking of Stereolab, who happen to feature a French vocalist, another track on Mondo Beyond of note is “Repetez Le Repertoire,” which features another kind of Krautrock influence: the incongruous electronic rhythmic pulses of Kraftwerk. It also features the sensual voice of Isabelle Antena, who primarily reigned in the post punk/art rock, samba-influenced band from France called Antena, during the early eighties. Gimeno says he did a remix for her and always talked about collaborating. “I was re-listening to the first Deee-Light album, which is such a big record and a huge influence also for me too, just the way they were kind of handling samples, so I had this very bubbling kind of electronic track, and I thought it has this kind of French thing, and I asked her and she was down for it.”

Probably the biggest name who collaborated on Mondo Beyondo is Fred Schneider of the B-52s. He sings on the second track, “Hey You.” Gimeno says they both had a mutual friend who wanted the two to meet. It never happened but, during one fateful airplane trip from a gig in the Midwest, Gimeno noticed him on board. Gimeno says he gathered the courage to approach him in baggage claim after landing in New York, and he introduced himself dropping their mutual friend’s name. When Schneider asked Gimeno what he did, Gimeno told him about Ursula 1000. “Oh, I think I have all your albums!” Schneider responded.

Gimeno could not believe it. “I was shocked. How crazy. So we just swapped info,” he says, “He has this side project called the Superions, which is him and two guys from Orlando. They do this weird kind of electro-pop stuff, and I did a remix of one of their tracks, and that’s kind of how we broke the ice.”

Schneider happens to live in Manhattan, and Gimeno offered him a track of instrumental music that needed vocals. He came over to record it in Gimeno’s home studio. “It was great,” Gimeno says. “It was real super easy to work with him. He had this great book of lyrics. It was all so super quick, just right in the pocket.”

Gimeno says he and Schneider continue to work together. “I’ll be producing some tracks for the upcoming Superions album,” he says.

Collaborating on projects beyond his own albums is nothing new for Gimeno. He also will be producing music for the Japanese pop singer Izumi’s forthcoming album, and he recently finished a remix for an an upcoming compilation from Waxploitation called Future Sounds of Buenos Aires.”

Despite his international exposure. Gimeno still comes across as the down-to-earth music and comic book geek I first met as the owner of Bam! Comics and Graphic Novels in North Miami, when he lived in South Florida, back in the early nineties. The cover art of Mondo Beyondo harkens back to his love of comic books, as the illustrations come from an obscure comic book called “Mod Love,” by French pop artist Michel Quarez (he was then uncredited) written by Michael Lutin. “I’ve always been a comic book nerd,” Gimeno says. “I love the genre and stuff, and there’s this comic book that I heard about called “Mod Love,” which came out in 1967 or something like that, and it was this very psychedelic, Peter Max, Yellow Submarine kind of groovy art thing. Totally impossible to find. It was like from some weird, small publisher. I finally found one on eBay last year, after years of hunting for this thing. When I got it, it was just page after page of really beautiful art. As I was working on the album, I kept thinking to myself, this is the artwork for the album, but how the hell am I going to license this stuff because I don’t think the publisher exists anymore. And then I finally tracked down the writer. He does astrology for ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine, and he must have done this comic book when he was like 20 or something. It turned out he had the rights for it.”

Gimeno approached Lutin and told him what he had planned for it, expressing his love for sixties mod culture and psychedelia. Lutin asked Gimeno for his astrology sign and then granted him the license to use it as cover art. “He saw that my intentions were true,” Gimeno says, “and he was super cool with it. It was nice to have something that wasn’t a fourth generation or fifth generation. It was like an artifact of that era.”

Though the album first came out on CD and MP3 back in August, it was not until December that a large format, double LP, gatefold vinyl release saw the light of day to do the art proper justice. “It’s so weird,” Gimeno says, “the physical world is kind of diminishing right now. To get CDs or vinyl pressed nowadays is like pulling teeth. I really wanted this out, even from a limited kind of standpoint.”

Only 500, hand-numbered vinyl copies saw release, and two months later only a few remain at select shops (Amazon seems to still have a few in stock, as of this posting). “It’s weird because 500 now is like 3,000 from like six years ago. When I first got on the label [ESL Music] vinyl was very healthy. To press like 2500 or 3,000 of a 12-inch single for me, it’s like not a problem at all. Now if you do that, it’s like ‘Wow!'”

Gimeno also notes that he recently heard of Neil Young’s rant regarding the loss of sound quality in the digital sound of MP3s, which seems to be the preferred format of the music industry nowadays. “He broke it down in a weird way,” he says of Young. “He had broken it down to decibels and how like even good quality mp3s are like some kind of weird decibel, and there’s this whole body of sound being lost because of it.”

As a DJ, Gimeno is very sensitive to vinyl, and he’s noticed audiences do not seem to care, especially in the clubs. “It’s almost like how loud can you go than the subtleties of the track,” he says. “It’s not even about sound quality anymore. It’s completely like who can be the loudest,” he says with a laugh, noting that it is all about rattling the speakers over the sound of the music. “It’s always like how far can I push this subsonic bass thing.”

But now he is concerning himself with how to recreate his recordings in the purest way possible: a live setting with a band. Besides only two “pseudo live shows” Gimeno has never performed the music of Ursula 1000 in a band. “One was at the World Trade Center,” he says, “at the Windows of the World that used to be at the very top of the building. There was this really cool party that was going on when we first moved here. It was kind of like playing a lot of that J-pop that was around at the time, like Pizzacato 5 and a lot of this lounge revival mixed with a lot of the clubbier [music]. It was interesting. Then Marissa [Gimeno, his wife, who also appears on Mondo Beyondo] and I did a live thing recently in Washington DC in October. But it was very stripped down: bass guitar and beats that were prerecorded, kind of like the Kills.”

If he is going to perform Ursula 1000 music in a band setting, Gimeno says he wants to do it right and also stage a proper show. “I just want to do something cool,” he says. “Like some visual revue thing … A lot of times when people do a live thing, especially when they are in the same boat as I am, they might be this one-man-band that’s electronically-based, sometimes they’ll do a live thing where it’s just them and a laptop, and I really don’t want to do that. I feel like it’s kind of cheating. I really want to do something where I’m stripping everything away and rebuilding it back live … It’s going to happen.”

So far, Ursula 1000 has the following DJ dates lined up, including some dates in Miami

Hans Morgenstern

*He only recently returned from the Green Plugged Red Festival in Seoul, Korea. It was his fourth appearance there over the years.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

As I noted yesterday, during the first day the Weezer Cruise, I left my camera for the most part in the cabin to  enjoy the cruise as a pure spectator experience (Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 1 of 4]). The next day the camera came out to document a few of the many great indie bands and musicians on board this unique four-night cruise.

The first band we saw that afternoon, at 4 p.m. was Boom Bip (pictured above), which needs a new name like the Sea Eats the Sky or Kaleidoscopic Soundscapes (kaleidoscopic images unfolded on the giant screen overhead as the band performed on the Lido Deck). The trio of musicians produced an extraordinary din of post rock grooves that recalled everything from Neu! to Explosions in the Sky. They began just as we sat down to have lunch behind the stage. I was looking out at the ocean, and I could not help but notice the waves out there reminded me of the cover art to Ride’s album Nowhere. Maybe it was the music, an odd sound to hear on a Carnival cruise ship, if there ever was one. For a trio of musicians, they had an awesome, grand sound that still had a nice driving, drone-rock quality. Nothing less than entrancing… if you listened to it. It was instrumental but mighty. I would later meet and chat with the band’s founder, Bryan Charles Hollon (pictured above on the keyboards). He was pleased that I had noted the references to Krautrock masters in the music, like Neu!, as well as the all-around post rock vibe of the band, which also recalled Mogwai. Turns out Mogwai has remixed their stuff:

Hollon also said he is longtime friends with Stuart Braithwaite, one of Mogwai’s guitarists. Of course, it would turn out Boom Bip are better known outside of the US and have a long catalog to show for it (mainly available in the UK on Lex Records). They were the only band I did not know before going on the cruise that also won me over as a fan. Unfortunately, a need for rest and a prejudice to over-indulge in the bands I already knew meant I missed getting to know other bands with respectful attendance. Over the course of the cruise I only got tastes of Keepaway and Sleeper Agent that showed potential, but not enough to pass serious judgement. But both sounded worthy of seeking out recordings (and I purchased a cool Sleeper Agent T-shirt on board). But I definitely hope to catch up with Boom Bip in the future.

Next show after Boom Bip on the Lido deck, at 5:30 in the afternoon, was the Wavves. We just chilled for a moment on deck chairs and then the show started right on time following a very precise sound check with the band. All the shows we saw throughout the cruise started like clockwork and sound was never an issue, except maybe at the artists’ discretion (Dinosaur Jr. was loud on purpose). I only witnessed one problem with buzz shrieking from an amp during Sebadoh’s last show, on the final night of the cruise, but even then, on-stage, frontman Lou Barlow gave props to the sound throughout the cruise. I’ve never seen so many shows, one after another, run on time with great sound. It certainly seemed the show’s producers, Sixthman, knew what they were doing. Also, though the bands were certainly of the anti-establishment ilk, they showed great professionalism when it came to logistics.

That said, Wavves gave a show worthy of the punk rockers they are. Frontman Nathan Williams started the show by showing gratitude to a mysterious character named Willers. He told the crowd about the difficult day before, as he said, he had took in too much mescaline. Willers apparently came to his rescue and brought him to his cabin, leaving him a note that said “Your cat looks just like mine” and his Twitter account info. Here’s a video of that show, with Williams still asking for Willers before the band tore into “Idiot” and “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”:

It was a fun concert with great attitude, yet the band remained affable and connected with the audience. Williams dedicated a song to a little kid (one of the few on board) and expressed appreciation to a man who yelled out “I enjoy your music!”

“Thank you, I’ll take that. That’s very nice,” Williams said, acknowledging the man with odd, mock sincerity.

Drummer Jacob Cooper at one point seemed so annoyed by all the banter between songs, he yelled at bassist Stephen Pope to “shut up,” as he seemed eager to tap out the next song. Here is an image of the band blowing their dirty beach rock jams out to sea:

That evening also marked the first Lou Barlow solo performance. It was a nice, low-key show at the Criterion Lounge, toward the back of the ship, which seemed to have already begun when we got there, even after we skipped out on the Wavves early. About halfway through his show, Barlow began asking how much time he had left, as he basically improvised the set list and even took requests. At one point Barlow expressed regret for not having his ukulele, something he referenced in my first interview with him before the cruise (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ [soon to be reissued on LP]: an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Not only is the uke an appropriate instrument for a cruise, but it would have facilitated some selections from Weed Forestin. But the requests rolled in nicely, and he did a creative version of his one big hit single, “Natural One” (from one of his many side projects, the Folk Implosion). He ended the show with “Day Kitty” which, as he set up in the introduction to the song, revealed a lot about his life, love of cats and children. It was a fun, revealing show at the end, and the audience offered hushed attention, for the most part. Here he is taking on a Dinosaur Jr. song, early in the set:

After the show, it was off to dinner with more people: John from Atlanta and a couple from the Boston area wearing good ugly sweaters. The guy wore a printed Tupac sweater and the gal some hideous purple flower-print thing decorated by sporadic fake amethyst gem stones. Great efforts indeed. I had left my “ugly” sweater in the cabin, expressing I could not believe it was the Ugly Sweater Night already. It’s the second evening, and the Weezer cruise already felt as though it was passing fast.

During this dinner we stayed for the entire meal, all the way through to desert (heck, it was lobster night), but that meant missing bands. In the Criterion Lounge the Nervous Wreckords played a full set and Ozma had begun its set, which would bleed into Yuck’s show at the Criterion. Yuck were one of the star attractions of the cruise for us, so we had to catch them on the first night. They brought on the hypnotic white noise, which has the unfortunate effect of sometimes making one feel sleepy (it did not help that we had full stomachs), and we were sitting in the back at a cocktail table, watching everyone sway to and fro. It seemed a more choppy night at sea than usual. Max Bloom, one of the guitarists, asked for seasickness pills on stage, but the band made it through their set. The floor was cleared to make way for standing room, and it was too crowded to even get a good snapshot, much less make a video, so I offer a later picture of Bloom with the band outside on the Lido Deck.

As the band packed up their gear much of the audience straggled to chat. It was a pretty packed show. Seeing as this was the night of the first Weezer show of Pinkerton and B-Sides at the Palladium Lounge (we found that we had a pair of those randomly distributed “golden tickets” at check-in but chose Yuck over the headliners). There must have been other fans of Yuck like us who skipped Weezer to see them. As the band packed up, I went down to the cabin to grab the now out-of-print first edition Yuck record, which I had brought with me so they could sign it. They were all friendly but pretty aloof. I did speak with singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg a bit. He praised the Silver Jews as an influence, but he also seemed tired of talking about his band, seeing as 2011 was a breakout year for the band on many a critic’s list (check out this “Rolling Stone” article). He was actually more interested in talking about his little known passion for cinema (turns out he is a big fan of the Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieslowski). Seeing as he signed my record on a cruise ship, here’s the appropriate note he wrote on the back of the record as we chatted:

Here’s the front after the rest of the band signed it (Blumberg also did the cover art, by the way. He was amused when I told him it wound up on “Billboard”s “10 Worst Album Covers of 2011“):

Then it was just back to the cabin, where I considered seeing Sebadoh, but, man, had the crowd grown rowdy. My wife told me that while I had been upstairs meeting the members of Yuck, some guy was knocking on cabins in the nude to use a phone. She heard yelling outside like “Dude, you’re naked!” and “Bro, I was just trying to get laid! She took my beer! I paid $8 for that beer, and I chased after her, and I look down, and I’m naked. She took my beer, and now I’m not even going to get laid!” That was a good enough note to end the day on. Still, more action-packed nights lay ahead… (continued in “Weezer Cruise over, back to reality – a recap [Day 3 of 4]”).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I try to balance this blog with an interest in both independent film and music. But lately movie reviews have certainly been favored… so much so that I do not feel I can fairly offer a truly objective list of top 10 albums of 2011 (though February will certainly see a list of 20 of the best films I saw this year, as usual). I do plan a year-end music review post, but it will be one of the most subjective year-end posts/articles I have ever written.

In the meantime, as the new year looms, what better time to make my resolution to bring more music coverage to this blog for 2012, starting today with a personal music-oriented excursion that proves I still have a strong interest in vinyl records.

Last weekend, I made by bi-annual visit to Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Rodeway Inn, about an hour-long drive north of my home, for a small, regular Florida record show that just may be the only routine record collector’s meet in South Florida. The last time I went, about six months ago, I arrived late and came out with scant few offerings to boast about. This time I was going to pay the extra three bucks for early entry (the show has a $7 cover for early entry before 10 a.m. and $5 after that [$4 with the flyer I had]), and it paid off. Below are pictures of the haul with some notes on the records.

One of my early great finds resulted in some awesome David Bowie bootlegs offered at a steal of a price: $3 for vinyl bootlegs, including some of his most acclaimed: Slaughter in the Air, the Thin White Duke and Resurrection on 84th Street. The first was culled from a performance in 1978. I’ve heard that live material well enough on the official Stage live album, and it’s not the greatest period for Bowie in concert. The latter two are both from the 1976 Station to Station tour, the Resurrection set is one of Bowie’s most famous concerts, at the Nassau Coliseum in New York. That has since been reissued on both CD and vinyl by EMI Records, as noted in many of my most popular postings on this blog (Could ‘Station to Station’ be EMI’s final Bowie reissue?; David Bowie’s Station to Station to be reissued in fancy 9-disc package; U.S. release date announced for Bowie’s Station to Station reissue; Advance copies for Bowie’s Station to Station features DVD-A).

I was comfortable to be in the presence of those records but would not see myself playing them over enough, if at all. I was interested in some other Bowie boots that included this cheap, black and white covered version of Bowie’s live appearance on the Midnight Special in 1974, offering previews of music that would end up on Diamond Dogs and covering his earlier hits, entitled Dollars in Drag – The 1980 Floor Show.

Then there was this double LP boot entitled The Serious Moonlight Rehearsals.

It’s another live era that never did Bowie much justice but also saw him selling out stadiums, following the release of his hit 1983 album Let’s Dance. The titles of the tracks, like “I Really Meant to Say” and “Hinterland” intrigued, though those are probably made up titles by the bootlegger of popular Bowie cuts.

I expect “Hinterland” will turn out to be “Red Sails,” but I cannot ever recall hearing that song live from a 1983 performance recording, and the cover and vinyl looked to be in good enough condition to make it worth checking out. But the special icing on this cake of this boot is the fact that guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn is advertised as having participated, and though he famously recorded guitar for Let’s Dance, giving the album quite a distinctive sound, he did not actually join the tour (Earl Slick came in for that), so this should make for an interesting spin on the record player.

Then there was this “Original Master Recording™” of The Rise and Fall and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, one of the few essential Bowie albums missing from vinyl collection. Though the cover looked worn, the vinyl did not, and these Original Master Recording™s (yes, they earned the TM on that) from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs are no joke.

It’s rare to stumble across Bowie records at record shows, much less a whole stack at cheap prices. Eight bucks for three rare Bowie records. I made up for that early extra cost at that one booth, for sure.

Right next to that seller, another guy was looking to dump this excellent condition Donovan double album, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, for $12:

All inserts (12 individually printed pages of lyrics for each song on the second LP in a folder) were there and the vinyl records looked great.

Plus, the box looked amazing with no tears or splits. The back cover had a photo of Donovan with the guru of Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, attached to it (I would later learn, that this record indeed covered his feeling of initiation into TM).

I also went ahead and grabbed a great condition Mellow Yellow record from this dealer for $1. The cover looked worn, but, more importantly, as far as vinyl, I saw no scratches at all on the record.

I’ve recently been on a Donovan kick, as I have grown to realize his importance in bridging the gap between folk and psychedelic music in the late sixties. The music is phenomenal and resonates to this day on many contemporary acts. I like both Donovan and Belle and Sebastian for their mutual retro rock feel, though one is of the era and one is paying tribute to the era. Also, both Donovan and Belle and Sebastian frontman, Stuart Murdoch share a similar lilt to their voices, seeing as both hail from Scotland.

This find is a promo-only single for Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”:

Though it has the same song on both sides, the vinyl looked immaculate and the cover, a still image from her music video for the same song, is just a gorgeous, very literal (if unscientific) expression of the song title. It screams steam-punk technology before the term “steam-punk” ever came around. Plus, the track is from my all-time favorite Kate Bush album, 1985’s the Hounds of Love. Heck, Hounds of Love is probably one of the greatest albums of that year, even.

That record was $2, and, for the same price, I also picked up OMD’s Dazzle Ships, from 1983, only because I’ve heard it hyped by some musician friends of mine. Trusting them…

It also looked to be in great condition. Though you never know what you’ll get when you put the need to the vinyl, I do try to avoid any easy-to-spot scratches on the vinyl.

Speaking of, some of the more expensive records I splurged on that day included a $15 Music for Films record by Brian Eno, which I bargained down from $20 for a couple of tiny scratches (the music on there is too subtle to mar with pops and surface noise).

At another dealer’s table, I found a record from Hans-Joachim Roedelius, one of the founders of those electronic Krautrock pioneers Cluster (the softer, piano-oriented member): a 1984 album on the EG label, entitled Geschenk des Augenblicks – Gift of the Moment. For a spot of dried, water damage on the record, which I hope to get off with a record cleaning solution, I got half off the $10 asking price.

That same dealer also had an amazing looking version of an original A&M Records release of the Sky’s Gone Out from Bauhaus, with the original inner picture sleeve of the boys in the band and lyrics for $15. With the seller going half on the Roedelius record, I felt this record was also worth going for.

All told, I spent just $67 and walked out with nine records, including a double album and box set. Not bad.

Maybe this will lead to some individual reviews down the road, as one of the great things about hearing albums on vinyl is the rediscovery of a recording that still holds up nicely to this day. I’ve already started putting together a list of older records I’ve found on-line or at local record stores dating from the nineties on back that I hold up as some of the best of all time or of their times. Next year, beyond the smattering of new music reviews and even profiles (I have one interview with a major musician from the upcoming Weezer cruise in the can), readers of this blog can expect the celebration of some nice vinyl records, including original pictures of the artifacts.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

So what would it sound and feel like to experience Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with John Williams’ signature score replaced with the experimental, ambient drone of distorted synthesizers? The duo of Spielberger have imagined it, though it was purely inspired by the chapter titles of the DVD, and they swear they never watched the movie as they came up with the music. Heck, they even admit they did not exactly create the music from scratch, as they used a program available as an iPhone app to “generate” the music. Though both Ed Matus and Bert Rodriguez are musicians who can play a guitar if they wanted to, they chose to explore musicality in quite a different way. The result adds a strange, ethereal sense of gravitas to the movie, in a remote sort of way. If you know the film as well as I do, then just the titles of the tracks, like “Hooper Goes In” or “Town Meeting,” conjure images of the iconic film. The collision of these titles and the haunting drone of the music that seeps forth like the sludge of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch movie, brings an unknown artsy quality to the movie while still capturing the film’s over-all dread.

Already at work on a third collection of music, Spielberger are currently promoting this recently released conceptual ambient album entitled Chrissie’s Last Swim (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It is available at all the expected mp3 download sites for purchase without the album art, as the iTunes store rejected Rodriguez’ design, a play on the famous Jaws poster art (but join their Facebook page, and you can get the album for free, with the original art). Rodriguez is actually best known as an artist. He’s received numerous grants for his work and has exhibited at the esteemed Bass Museum in his Miami neighborhood, at well as Art Basel Miami Beach, but also at New York’s Whitney during the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in London during the Frieze Art Fair. Most recently he was the focus of a feature-length documentary that played at the Miami International Film Festival and screened theatrically at the Miami Beach Cinematheque called Making Sh*t Up.

A conceptual artist who never limits himself to any medium, Rodriguez adores the prankster aesthetic of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. A post-Dada, post-futurist, post-surrealist movement, Fluxus owes a debt to all those movements but is probably best known for its wit. For instance, staging a dramatic play with the curtain lifted a couple of inches to only ever reveal the shoes of the performers. Rodriguez notes one stunt he is famous for that involved him buying up picture frames from retail stores and replacing them for purchase soon after with the sample pictures replaced by photographs of himself. He noted that for the Whitney Biennial, he designed a space…

… with comfy chairs, a tissue box, etc. to give psycho-therapy sessions to anyone who registered for an appointment on the Whitney’s web page, in effect creating a living, breathing example of transference between the artist and the spectator with art object taken out. In some ways he does not take himself too seriously, yet he does. “It’s like if Andy Kaufman were in a gallery,” he sums up.

He and Matus recently dropped by my apartment in the Kendall suburbs of South Florida to casually talk about these mp3s they recently conjured up. Rodriguez sits still in the corner of my couch and always seems to look straight ahead as he talks, looking at the blank TV screen in front of him. “This was a way for us to do something fun and awesome,” he said simply of the collaboration.

Matus, who was once known as the singular artist behind the experimental electronica act H.A.L.O. Vessel and most recently as a member as the eclectro-pop-rock outfit the Waterford Landing, looks for a record to put on and immediately gravitates to my Neu! box set. Rodriquez approves, and Matus selects the Krautrock masters’ 1972 debut. They both marvel at the timelessness of the grooves that inspired everyone from David Bowie to Stereolab and maybe even them, a bit.

Spielberger’s debut EP, Music for Cruises, came from a project Rodriguez had developed as a commission for a cruise line, inspired by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the concept album that paved the way for what Eno would term “ambient music,” an unobtrusive and atmospheric instrumental form of music that was part of the spatial environment where it was played. Though Rodriquez said the client liked the music he generated using the iPhone app called Mixtikl, they went another way. The music did not go to waste, however, and after some treatments by Matus, they released Music for Cruises (the cover art for the EP features the duo with their “instruments”). Matus, who first appeared on the local music scene as a member of the art-rock/hardcore/punk outfit Subliminal Criminal in the early nineties, spent a great part of the later years of that decade experimenting with electronic music (Here’s a story I wrote for the “Miami New Times” about his early forays using keyboards and a bank of effects pedals for instrumentation). “We were discussing that there really isn’t any ambient music,” Matus said. “Nobody’s done a real serious ambient album like Eno in the seventies.”

But, one must wonder, what sort of musicianship does Mixtikl call for? The pair both admit “none.” Rodriguez explained the parameters to create the music requires some vision, however. “It takes a certain level of intention, discipline and comfort with the capabilities and limitations of the tool itself to produce a sophisticated sound that can be guided or coaxed to create a mood or express an idea effectively,” he explains further via email. “Those qualities have very little to do with what is traditionally defined as ‘Musicianship.’ All those qualities I mentioned above are what define creative intellect as opposed to technical skill.  Although one is not better than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, the music has to be good and/or interesting regardless of how it was produced, and that can only be decided by a third party.”

Though they are working with a program that comes finely tuned, Matus notes it does call on a musical aptitude to realize some sort of vision. “Bert and I are both trained musicians,” he explains via email, “so there is a bit more clarity when it comes to knowing how to intentionally create a certain mood, as opposed to messing around blindly.”

The program indeed offers an intimidating amount of variety that calls on musical creativity to produce a specific form of music, as demonstrated by the poster art promoting it (click the image below for a larger view of the various screens involved):

Rodriguez had said, in the end, it’s not too different from how Eno designed works like Music for Airports or its predecessor, 1975’s Discreet Music. “It’s just how Eno would have done it. You set up certain parameters, you pick key, scale, whether it’s major, minor, then you pick tempo, and the banks of sound [the program offers].” He also noted that Mixtikl “was created by the same guys who created Koan, which Eno pioneered the use of around ’95, ’96.”

The result of the duo’s first collaboration, Music for Cruises, can be streamed in its entirety right here:

For ambient music, it does offer quite a dynamism, from the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tracks to the variety of pulsing electronic sounds that offer an array of tonal color and textures. It sounds kind of like post-Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd with the guitars, drums and voices stripped away, leaving only the bare, skeletal hum of the backing electronics sighing and groaning on their own.

Spielberger’s latest effort, Chrissie’s Last Swim, already reveals a bit of a departure for the duo. Opening with the white noise of “The Town Meeting,” the album starts with a roar, like a long frozen moment of horror that is the shark attack. “The Expert,” arrives to bring some calm to the proceedings, as a whispering howl ever so slowly fades in for over a minute and then seems to blow and recede, as a soft metallic metronome beat keeps a rhythm for the ghostly sound that only seems to follow the pattern of the wind.  “July 4th” opens with a metallic quaver that sounds like it must come from an electric guitar, yet one cannot discern any plucking on it. The noise ebbs and flows for eight minutes to reveal a calm layer of whistling synth noise below the din, which quietly fades away over the course of a minute. Steve Reich would be proud.

From the album title to the individual tracks, all the titles are indeed lifted from the chapter insert found inside the DVD case of Jaws. The album rounds out with the following tracks:

4. Face to Face
5. Hooper Goes In
6. End Titles

Rodriguez explained that Spielberg the director has no direct influence over the music or its theme. “We never really chose Spielberg in favor of any other director or something. Our relationship to him is actually pretty random.  It’s just become a starting point for an ongoing joke that started with how the name came up for the group. We never set out to make fun or pay homage to him over any other director or even anyone else at all for that matter. It was a funny exploration that has led to the images I’ve created thus far, which we’ll either move on from or not.”

Rodriguez shared more images that iTunes would probably never allow as future album covers. All are variations of famous posters for even more famous Spielberg movies, while offering a typical example of Rodriguez repurposing existing art as his own. Though he created an array of these images, he and Matus have not committed to future albums designed the same way as Chrissie’s Last Swim, with music named after other chapter titles from other Spielberg DVDs. Rodriguez presents Music For Cruises as an example contrary to such assumptions, which he called “a riff on Eno’s Music For Films [1978].” In that album’s case the titles were inspired by the feminine word for “Sea” in different languages, Rodriguez noted. “There is really no reference to Spielberg in that record at all,” he said.

Matus even noted that to consider Spielberger only a musical project would be unfair. He and Rodriguez did hint that they are trying to conceive a live show out of it sometime before year’s end. “We can reproduce what we do live,” Matus stated. “However, due to the generative nature of the program, things will be different. The mood of the song will be the same, and there’ll be enough for someone to recognize it, but the events will be happening at different times, intervals etc. … We do plan on doing this live. However, we don’t want to define ourselves as just a music project or a band. Spielberger has many facets, which we hope to show during our performance, as well as the follow-up to Chrissie’s Last Swim, which we are working on now. Our intention was to create a vehicle in which anything and everything can happen. We are currently planning a performance in which the generative aspect is a tiny component among many. Hopefully, this will happen in December.

Rodriguez goes into further detail: “… the nature of ‘Generative Music’ is such that once you create and play that composition the first time, any time after that, even if the rules and parameters are exactly the same, it’s never the same exact composition. We can definitely save those parameters and perform a likeness to the original but, it will never be exactly note-for-note to the original. That’s also really liberating and exciting for me because it gives us a chance creatively to think about live performance outside of the traditional way where you sit there and play music while a bunch of people just sit there and watch you do it … That’s why I describe Spielberger as an ‘experimental duo’ formed of… We created Spielberger as a platform for us to be able to explore and execute any idea we had musically or otherwise. This is just the beginning. We’re working on a new record which will sound nothing like the last two records. And we already have ideas for other recordings in the future that are even less like any of those. We have ideas for some videos, even some limited edition projects or releases. We have lots of plans for things that also have nothing to do with music at all. I believe we both enjoy using this program so much and have so much yet to explore within it that we’ll probably continue to release generative compositions like the ones on the first two records in the future. We’ve only really worked together for a few months and have produced a great deal of music in a short time. For our live show, we’re planning on incorporating the music into a much larger context of what a performance can be, from anywhere between Andy Kaufman, Stanley Kubrick and the Pet Shop Boys.”

So, consider these two releases Spielberger’s calling card for something much grander to come… stay tuned.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A three-hour-plus sci-fi experience, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), seemed to have existed as mere legend in the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as it has rarely screened since its debut on German TV in 1973. The fact that it focused on virtual worlds within computers added to a brewing interest over the years, as it seemed to foretell the current age we live in. More prescient than ever, it is finally making the rounds at art house cinemas across the US.

However, as prophetic as this film seems to be, this ain’t no Matrix or Blade Runner, two films I have read it often compared to. Casual Fassbinder fans or world cinema fans and especially fans of the Matrix should be fairly warned: This is Fassbinder at his most sluggish.* World on a Wire’s pace may present nothing short of a challenge for those accustomed to the “bullet-time” shooting of today’s sci-fi. The long pauses the actors seem to take between sentences, as if everyone must ruminate before saying the next sentence, is a Fassbinder stylization that can certainly grow weary over a few hours.

First screened in two parts on German TV (Part One is 105 minutes while Part Two runs 107 minutes), the theatrical experience puts both together for a runtime of three hours and 32 minutes, and the action develops slow, as strange, incongruous mysteries continue to pile up in the narrative. A man vanishes from one moment to the next, practically in front of the eyes of our hero, setting him off on an odd wild goose chase to get to the bottom of the disappearance. By the same token, falling equipment can crush a woman as our hero speaks with her, but he can still carry on with his stroll with nary a change on his face. Throughout the movie people walk through scenes with mostly blank looks. Women especially act like vapid mannequins. It’s as if Fassbinder made the movie not just for another time but another dimension of humanity.

The protagonist is a buff computer engineer in his mid-thirties. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) comes to head the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor, Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) dies following what seems a nervous breakdown. The Simulacron, a giant computer (this was made in the seventies when data was stored on tape, after all), simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units.” These artificial people are given all the characteristics of humanity excepting the notion of the Simulacron, so the world “above” exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units “below.”

Corporations want in on the government project to simulate and therefore foretell future scenarios and bank on them. Stiller resists, however, showing concern for strange goings on like that sudden disappearance of his associate, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny). He soon begins to wonder, is he in control of a simulated world or part of one? At the core of this question, is whether reality, or existence for that matter, is re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on computers to make decisions. Are we in fact giving up free will by investing in a computer-centric world? It’s an appropriate question in this contemporary time.

The result is at times prophetic, though often meandering and a bit indulgent. This is indeed Fassbinder in his element, and those who miss him will celebrate the restoration of this film. Those unfamiliar his style should be prepared to know a little something about his unique filmic flourishes, and how this film might fit in with the renaissance of the science-fiction film genre, a genre otherwise unexplored by Fassbinder.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi movies had just become something more than cheap, escapist camp during this period of movie history. 2001, which followed a script written with sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, truly opened the genre to philosophical questions. In 1972, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky offered Solaris, adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, as his response to Kubrick’s movie. Though 2001 and Solaris are held up as some of the greatest works of serious science-fiction cinema, World on a Wire became forgotten. There are probably many reasons for this. Fassbinder was much more prolific than either Kubrick or Tarkovsky, which meant World on a Wire was sort of lost in the shuffle of his output. Fassbinder would also not become appreciated as a serious filmmaker until practically after his death.

It is a shame that World on a Wire, based in Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 American novel Simulacron-3, languished for as long as it did, as Fassbinder dives into the implications of alternate realities with aplomb. He certainly tries to raise the film to the higher level of sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, even if the results do come across as a bit uneven. One factor maybe that Löwitsch had been drunk throughout the filming. “[He was] never not drunk,” according to Ulli Lommel, who played both the journalist Rupp in the movie and worked on the film’s art direction while also taking the assignment as Löwitsch’s “chaperone” (ibid).

Knowing Fassbinder, his acceptance of such behavior from his lead, a regular of his films, should come as no surprise. If punk rock has an equivalent in cinema, it might have been Fassbinder. He embodies the spirit of the German New Wave of the sixties and seventies, which famously included Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, as he jumped into film making despite his rejection from the Berlin Film School. He seemed to make films as a primal desire he could not keep at bay. His movies were raw works driven by an unstoppable desire to create, hence resulting in such messy, passionate works such as World on a Wire, which can still show a very literate knowledge of mise-en-scène and cinematic technique. With World on a Wire, Fassbinder even seems to give a nod to Kubrick with the presence of classical music during some scenes and the sometimes indulgent use of a tracking camera.

As it was rarely screened until now, most Fassbinder fans will only know World on a Wire as a sort of lost gem from the prolific director who only stopped making movies after he died at the age of 36 mixing illicit drugs and sleeping pills. He still managed to direct more than 40 films over the course of 16 years of film directing, some with epic run times.

Despite an enfant terrible reputation, Fassbinder also had a highly attuned insight into humanity, particularly of his peers of post-war Germany. He was not afraid of criticizing his countrymen, and did it ever piss them off. However, as he is dealing with an alternate reality in World on a Wire, the people populating the film maintain an enigmatic quality. A true sense of humanity does not come until the movie’s very last scene. This is not the incite-worthy Berlin Alexanderplatz (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), released in early 1980. Germans protested in the streets during the broadcast of his famous 15-hour television series, which he adapted from Alfred Döblin’s German novel that captured Germany between two World Wars. A thoughtful tribute to the mini-series, which had a theatrical release in the US in 1983, by contemporary German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) can be found here. Tykwer notes the protests alleged a dissatisfaction in the quality of sound and images, but below it all was a painful exorcism of the dark German spirit.

In comparison, World on a Wire seems like a tamer work in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It offers some quirky, if uneven qualities. As already noted, the acting varies, and many characters, especially the women, seem to populate the film as if in a trance. There’s on off-putting inconsistent use of zoom outs and zoom ins. It features a strange soundtrack recalling 1956’s Forbidden Planet, of occasional and oddly timed electro/synth stings and noise, punctuating certain actions. At times, these cues appear at arbitrary moments, adding to the movie’s off-putting surreal quality. It’s as if this movie indeed came from not only another time and place but an alternate universe.

As opposed to Berlin Alexanderplatz, World on a Wire must have baffled viewers upon its first broadcast on West German television more than angered them, leading me again to think of another reason this movie sort of languished at the back of Fassbinder’s filmography. It was just too ahead of its time. But nowadays with virtual reality, the Internet and role-playing games like the Sims, World on a Wire could very well be easier to comprehend. A millennial view would probably take for granted some of the film’s then idiosyncratic notions. For instance, living a simulated life inside a computer. In fact, the incongruously dressed people at a party around an indoor pool, some just standing, most barely moving, could be seen as a field of Avatars awaiting commands from their users. Quirks like that give the film a special, almost surreal atmosphere coupled with a prophetic air. Though Fassbinder did not invent the Sims, he indeed seems fascinated about the multi-dimensional aspects of such a world. Users of the Simulacron can peer into it with black and white monitors set up around the computer, though to interface with it, they must don helmets, the design and idea of which seem to foretell the virtual reality trend of the nineties.At the start of the film, we are introduced to this alternate future during a meeting of officials with vested interests in the Simulacron. Vollmer soon confronts secretary of state Von Wielaub (Heinz Meier) with a handheld mirror and tells him: “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Von Wielaub huffs and puffs angrily at the seeming affront, but it is a truth not only functional in alternate reality but life in general, a testament to the philosophical aspects of this movie.

Throughout World on a Wire, mirrors and reflections on glass offer continual signposts for meditating on Vollmer’s revelation. But the truth of what is actually going on in the movie does not reveal itself to Stiller until the very end of the film’s first part, though, as already noted, Fassbinder drops incongruous little clues throughout that are sometimes unsettling and other times more subtle. I would rather not spoil what Stiller learns at the end of this first half of the film, as some might figure it out on their own, very early on, and if you can glean a guess from earlier scenes where this is going, the film might already begin to feel a bit tedious.

But something that does make the unfolding action more interesting throughout is realizing that the World on a Wire at stake is a fear of losing the self, an idea that certainly also looms large today in a different sense from what it meant in the cold-war era that produced this movie, just over the Berlin Wall. The central mystery at the film unfolds at the pool party just after Lause tells Stiller, “Do you know what fear is?” A glass falls, Stiller turns away, distracted. He then looks back to find Lause has vanished. Stiller then becomes obsessed with Lause’s sudden disappearance, and no one seems to know who Lause is, despite his seeming closeness to Simulacron from the outset. Could Stiller’s sense of reality be falling apart? Appropriately enough, the institute where he works, has a psychologist on hand to take care of any doubts in the minds of their people. Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck) tells Stiller he understands why his nerves might be frayed and reminds him of a key part of his job on the Simulacron project: “You can add or delete people at will. This leads to feelings of guilt, depression and fear.” This is testament to today’s world of alternate realities that people constantly participate in with such nonchalance. What are we doing to our sense of self on such interactive platforms such as Facebook? It is only after Stiller seems to make the ultimate sacrifice at the film’s very end that he makes the joyful, simple declaration: “I am. I am.”(Read about the poster artist’s process: here)

Janus Films has undertaken the film’s distribution, so expect a Criterion Collection release, according to a close source at the studio. As can be expected by such participants like Janus and Criterion, known for some of the best film and DVD restorations in the medium’s history, the picture quality of World on a Wire is amazing. The well-timed cinematic release has already played a handful of cities, and MBC will screen it in HD. Framed in 4:3 ratio for television and shot on 16mm reversal film, which does not exactly offer the finest grain image, New York’s Museum of Modern Art worked with Juliane Lorenz, the director of the RWF Foundation, and Michael Ballhaus, the movie’s cameraman, to produce a new 35mm print, which is also now making the rounds to a select few cinemas (three-and-half-hours of 35mm makes for a lot of 45-pound canisters). It had its debut more than a year ago at MoMA.

Where I live, World on a Wire will hit the big screen thanks to an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, from Friday to Tuesday, July 29 – Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. each night (the theater’s director, Dana Keith, assured me to expect an intermission between the film’s two parts, for those that might need a break). Other screening dates across the US, including some in 35mm can be found here, and do not be afraid to write the distributor a line to ask about a nearby screening in your town (see their email address at the bottom part of the film’s official homepage).

*Allow me one note on the title theme, the gorgeous, listless instrumental, “Albatross” by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, which makes a great musical accompaniment to this equally indulgent review:

Though the film is filled with an odd array of burbles, squawks, hums and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg as well as diagetic classical music, this choice of music for the title sequence, which does not appear until the end credits of Part 1 of World on a Wire reminds me of the music Neu! would make if they were more chill. With its softly strummed guitar and the whine of a slide guitar, the piece sounds like Krautrock on Hawaiian holiday.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)