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Monthly Archives: May 2004

BBC Chill-Out Docu-stream

BBC Radio 2 has a streaming (and sprawling) hour-long audio-documentary on chill-out music, put together by Chris Coco. It includes interviews with musicians (Mixmaster Morris, Nightmares on Wax) atop an ongoing backdrop of musical examples, from Erik Satie to the Art of Noise to the current day. It’s apparently only up online through the weekend, here.

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Venezuelan Techno EP

The standout on Mérida, Venezuela-based Rafael L. Garnica‘s four-track Naif EP, a free download from the Microbio netlabel, isn’t the familiar techno of the title cut. And it isn’t “From LA” (the name of which includes a witty parenthetical clarification: “LA” means “Los Andes”), though that one has a distinct midtempo appeal, especially how on each run through the verse a layer of sound is added or removed. It isn’t “b3,” though this track distinguishes itself with a memorable false denouement at its midway point, when it breaks for an inquisitive line of beeps and a soothing choral “ahh.”

No, the keeper — and it’s a true keeper — is a remix, titled “Luisa a 3 Velocidades,” credited to El Lazo Invisible. On “Luisa,” El Lazo reduces Garnica’s well-honed sounds to at most a fifth the thickness of the other pieces on the album, trimming away the layers, rather than merely teasing with them, and dropping the standard beat like the bad habit that it is. What’s left is a thin slice of a song, the rhythm an occasional trip of a microscopic switch, the melody built from what sounds like a field recording of department-store elevator trills. Some of this relative quietude may have to do with the fact that “Luisa” was compressed at a measly 64kbps, versus a generous 224 for the rest of the EP, but that math doesn’t diminish Lazo’s skill; he really has a way with the stuttered sample, which he introduces on occasion with the low-level intrusiveness of something stuck in the periphery of your memory. Download the full set at microbiorecords.net.

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Live Hrvatski MP3

Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) went to Japan and all we got was a free half-hour live recording in the form of a stereo MP3 file. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad deal. Recently uploaded to the musician’s website, reckankomplex.com, is an “experimental session” (his phrase, and the title of the file) recorded in mid-December of last year in Tokyo at the Warszawa performance space. It’s a “whisper to a scream” scenario — well, a “whisper to a scream to a moan” scenario — starting as it does with snatches of circuit-sound, latitudinal guitar figures, and placid tonal elements, and proceeding to a hectic whirligig, a brilliant burst of volume and density that occurs about halfway through, only to simmer down to a syrupy blur of distortion.

Whitman describes the recording, in his characteristic third-person, on the website as follows: “using only his compu-trog 6000 model a/d converter and a borrowed semi-acoustic telecaster with bad grounding problems (there’s a rough bubbly bit in the middle there where the pitch-sensing algorithms simply wouldn’t track anything other than 50/60 cycle hum), keith-hrvatski yielded heretofore unknown worlds of wonder and delight for the 4 or 5 people that showed up. … now available to a slightly larger audience… slightly.” The free download has been made available to coincide with the commercial release of his latest album, Antithesis, a set of four archival recordings. Get the Tokyo file directly here.

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Plug Ugly

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — They came for the music, but they stayed for the Y2K jokes. The Laptop Battle in San Francisco on Sunday, April 18, promised an evening of competitive electronica. But while the individual performances were occasionally inspired, and the concert’s format intriguing in theory, the night was plagued by technical difficulties.

The Laptop Battle crew has been touring the country, promoting events at which electronic musicians vie for the approval of judges and audience alike. To keep the playing field relatively level, the rules are simple: only laptops are allowed. That means, according to the laptopbattle.org website, no “external controllers,” like keyboards and mixers. And you have only three minutes in which to prove yourself.

By the time they got to San Francisco, the battle’s organizers had sponsored events in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. Next up was a gig in Los Angeles at the Knitting Factory, later in the week. The setting in San Francisco was more 8 Mile than American Idol, a long, dank basement named Club Six just south of Market Street. Though it was a Sunday night, the floor was fairly packed by the time the show began. Of course, having 16 acts on the bill provides a lot of opportunity for friends and family of performers to fill the house.

First up came CIA (which stands for “Copyright Infringement Agency”), who played a Hare Krishna-ish chant over a drum pattern. He was pitted against Rydub, who followed with an extended bit of dubby club music, into which he secreted breaks of ska. Some in the audience expressed surprise when the judges awarded Rydub the first win of the night, but CIA’s good-humored track didn’t really do much in its third minute that it hadn’t already done in its second minute — or, for that matter, its first. Had Rydub benefited from a proper sound system (more on that later), the superiority of his performance would have been more self-evident.

DJ Aneurysm appealed to noise fans with a loud opening burst of static and a random assortment of samples, while his unfortunate opponent, named Terrac, had to start his piece several times, so faulty was the sound. Stream723, done up like a Matrix supporting character, danced in place while his laptop emitted poppy music that could have been a Berlin B-side (Berlin the new-wave band, not the techno Mecca). When the tune seemed to stop suddenly, someone quipped that Stream723 had broken a string. Such jokes kept the crowd busy, and in good spirits, during the many long stretches between performances. Y2K references proved particularly popular. A bumper sticker at the front of the stage that read “Vinyl Is Heavy” became less viable as a piece of propaganda as the night went on.

The periodic breaks due to technical troubles also provided opportunity for Sunday-night quarterbacking. One sticking point was that the wide variety of genres being presented — from abstract microsonics to deep techno — made judging almost impossible. A number of people, both at the event and online, have suggested that the series would be improved if the competitors all had to construct their songs, or sets, from a shared set of samples. It’s a cool idea, along the lines of the “Iron Chef of Music” contest run by the kracfive.com website, but it ignores the fact that the Laptop Battle is about performance, not composition.

Winning against Stream 723 was Phiber Optics, who followed the Beastie Boys’ lead by opening with a heaving Led Zeppelin drum sample. His set was plagued with problems, and he was forced to start over, which diminished the initial impact of that Zeppelin quote.

Two hours after the concert began, only eight acts had performed. Allowing the allotted three minutes per performer, this means less than a quarter of that time involved actual competition. The rest was tech support. Another eight musicians were on deck, though much of the audience had already gone home. (I soon followed.)

A post the next day on a blog linked to from the laptopbattle.org website owned up to the event’s failings: “Sunday nights show at Club Six was a humbling experience,” wrote Kris Moon, one of the battle’s co-producers. “Throwing a laptop battle takes alot of organization and synchronization among a large # of people. … We fucked up by not having the mixer there on time and i apologize to the contestants in those first 3 rounds, and anyone else who wasn’t patient enough to enjoy the smokey hallway or just have another beer.” Copyediting aside, Moon’s post explained that the gig’s appointed mixer didn’t arrive until 11pm. It also complained about the grungy neighborhood and noted that it was a Sunday night. But, as Moon wrote, “those are just excuses.”

Liz Dizon, identified as the night’s local promoter, wrote from the unknown8bit.org site, “[W]e’re all new to this touring laptop battle bidness,” noting the absence of backup plans and equipment. Ironically, for an event about cutting-edge music-making, the sound issues had nothing to do with buggy software or overextended computer chips.

No matter who is to blame, one thing is clear: the musicians weren’t. Perhaps the worst thing about the night was that this wasn’t always made clear to the audience. As a result, it took a while for folks to stop blaming the individual musicians for the problems, and to start recognizing that the fault lay entirely with the concert organizers.

A fellow named T. Machine reportedly won the San Francisco contest, which gets him a spot at the inaugural national laptop battle at Decibel Festival, a planned four-day event in Seattle in late September of this year. As for whether or not that’s a prize — well, you’d have to ask the San Francisco battle participants what they think.

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