6-String Synthesizer

Despite relentless death knells sounded for rock’n’roll, three CDs released in late 2001 and early 2002 reveal that the guitar, at least, is far from dead. Apparently, the instrument simply took a nap after rock’s supposed funeral and woke up with renewed vigor and a fresh sense of purpose.

All three albums in question utilize the guitar — electric and acoustic varieties — in the pursuit of a personal vision of ambient/electronic music.

On Steve Roach’s Streams and Currents (Projekt Records) the guitar is reported to be the primary instrument, but it’s almost unrecognizable; the result of much electronic processing is an album rich with an undercurrent of spiritual, almost shamanic intent.

On Keimar Sky (Coombe Records), by a British duo called Dual, the focus on the guitar as a source of droning ambience resembles Roach’s recording, but with entirely different textures and sounds.

And on Greg Davis’s Arbor (Carpark Records) the presence of an acoustic guitar is self-evident; Davis’s strumming appears to be virtually the only non-digital sound amid computerized drums and samples. That the various elements work together so seamlessly is a testament to Davis’ artistry as a composer and producer.

That the guitar should surface today as a useful instrument in a genre more closely associated with synthesizers, samplers and turntables makes sense, given the history of electronic music. One of pop’s first flirtations with classical minimalism came about from guitarist Pete Townshend’s fascination with the music of composer Terry Riley, while the Who was still at the height of its powers. The Beatles’ George Harrison, famously, took the vocabulary he developed in his study of open-ended Indian ragas and applied it to the electric guitar.

And Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music, made one of his first forays into the formless genre in a project with guitarist Robert Fripp; in 1973, half a decade before Eno produced his landmark Ambient 1: Music for Airports album, he and Fripp recorded No Pussyfooting, a record of beatific soundscapes and voluble dissonance.

The recent albums by Steve Roach and Dual most closely resemble the work that Eno and Fripp were doing almost three decades ago: treating the electric guitar with all manner of electronic effects in order to wring beautiful tones, dense with harmonic complexity, more akin to the vast spaces of choral music than to the elegant structures of chamber composition — and, most importantly, entirely devoid of the momentum that rock demands of its guitarists. There are no riffs on these albums, no songs for that matter, certainly not in the traditional sense of the word.

Only two things matter in this sort of music: tone and drone. Tone is the ineffable pinnacle of sound, a sonic flavor pleasurable unto itself. Drone is the Zen beauty of that sound sustained at length, either on its own or overlapping with other sounds. Both Roach’s Streams and Currents and Dual’s Keimar Sky have these two ingredients in abundance.

The guitar is, by no means, the primary focus of Steve Roach’s work. Perhaps America’s premiere ambient figure, he has summoned ethereal sounds from all manner of source material, including didjeridus, percussion and synthesizers. Since the late ’70s he has released approximately 40 albums. The guitar has made numerous appearances on Roach’s records, especially in the hands of others. He teamed with guitarist Roger King in 1998 for Dust to Dust (also on Projekt), a duo album that summoned the desert spirit of the American southwest, with an obvious debt to Ennio Morricone, the great film-soundtrack composer. Roach has also recorded with David Torn and Michael Brook, two musicians who use the guitar as an ambience-generator.

Streams and Currents, however, is Roach on his lonesome — and not just alone, but recording live, equipped with (to quote the album’s liner notes) “2 electric guitars, Ebow, various live looping and sound processing equipment.” This “live in the moment” recording process is essential to Roach’s belief that performing music is a kind of ritual. Streams and Currents should be heard as the document of a service, a heavenly accumulation of sounds that ebbs and flows, like some dreamtime current. He’s sort of like a Les Paul for the 21st century. Whereas Les Paul astounded us with the guitar’s various sonic possibilities, and with the powers of multi-track recording, Steve Roach astounds us with how much one person can do, all alone, without the benefits of post-production or overdubbing.

Dual, which consists of Colin Bradley and George Richardson, has an apparent affinity for silence. Several tracks on Keimar Sky, such as the opening “Pe-gglass” and another one titled “Nucell,” either fade in or out at an extreme length, taking minutes to work up to a low hum, or to dissolve into nothingness. Fripp and Eno aren’t the only evident influences on Dual’s music. About two minutes into the second cut on Dual’s album, a track titled “Kattus,” you can hear the beading — a kind of pointilist reverb — that Pete Townshend employed on “Baba O’Riley” (and, much later, “Eminence Front”). That is about as visceral as the album gets. Like Roach’s record, Dual’s indulges in gravitas — it could easily be the soundtrack to an existentialist remake of Blade Runner, all of the dread but minus any of the action sequences.

It must be understood from the outset that Greg Davis’s album, Arbor, is a breed apart from the work that Roach and Dual are up to. Davis’ album is included here as evidence of the guitar’s varied roles in electronic music, not to suggest some single-minded guitar-ambience movement. Davis’ music is far more difficult to classify than the tone-for-tone’s sake ambience of these other two recordings.

For one thing, the acoustic guitar he uses throughout Arbor sounds like an acoustic guitar, not like a vast swath of atmospheric ether. He plucks the thing, he plays rhythmic figures on it, and he comes close, at times, to sounding like he’s working out an exercise of “Dust in the Wind,” with circular picking motifs that are downright folksy.

On a track titled “Nicholas,” he initially sets the guitar against a tasty, automated backbeat, the sort of hip-hop-derived rhythm you might expect from Cornershop or the Gorillaz, with just enough of a psychedelic flavor to qualify as Britpop. (Though Davis played most of the guitar on Arbor, the sample on “Nicholas” is from Nick Drake, late legend of the British folk-revival movement.) Later on, the song reaches a chaotic plateau, the drums flailing like drum’n’bass at its most frenzied, and random sound samples appearing like ET has convinced the telephone operator to break into your call. On a song titled “Eleven Eight” Davis’ playing recalls the backward-taped guitar solos of George Harrison and, for that matter, Adrian Belew.

Davis is a master arranger and editor. What makes Arbor great is how all these little elements — tiny drum beats, the sound of a finger against a guitar string, an otherworldy effect — balance against one another.

Not all the tracks on Arbor have evident guitar elements — the brief opening cut, for example, is a bauble of dulcet samples. However the album’s last cut, from which it takes its title, is almost entirely acoustic guitar, resplendent in its echoes of John Fahey’s philosophical folk music. Only toward the end of the nearly nine-minute song do other elements (little globules of sounds, like day-glo chimes and a child’s piano) appear. The song can be heard as a reversal of the rest of the record, in which the ratio of acoustic elements to digital ones is flipped. The lesson is clear: all of these sonic items are just tools, none more important than any other, in the composer’s toolbox.

Originally published in the February 8, 2002, issue of epulse.

U.S. Robotics, Part 2/3

The owner-operators of small American electronic-music labels talk shop. Up second, Sam Rosenthal of Projekt Records, home to Steve Roach, among others.

This is the second in a series of interviews with the founders of small American electronic labels.

The first conversation was with Todd Hyman, who in 1999 founded Carpark Records, which has released music by such artists as Marumari, Jake Mandell and, most recently, Greg Davis, whose Arbor is the label’s 12th release. Hyman discussed his origins in college radio, his role in the development of New York City’s electronic community and the simple pleasures of stuffing envelopes.

This second interview is with Sam Rosenthal, who founded the Projekt label almost 20 years ago. The label’s first release, in 1983, was a various-artists cassette tape. One of the artists was Rosenthal, and the others were people he knew in South Florida, where he lived.

Rosenthal has moved around quite a bit since then, and the label has moved with him, first to Los Angeles (for college), then to Chicago and then, in 1999, to New York City.

Projekt may be best known for its recordings by Steve Roach, one of America’s premiere atmospherists, whose music is infused with the textures and rituals of the Southwest. Rosenthal has presented the work of dozens of acts, and also released much of his own, largely with his longtime group, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, which combines haunting vocals and a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The Projekt catalog is diverse, and includes a series of reissues that Rosenthal deems essential to what he terms “darkwave”; among the reissues are albums by Controlled Bleeding and Shinjuku Thief.

In the midst of preparing the latest release from Black Tape, Rosenthal talked about the acceptable realm of typographical errors, the perspective of a musician-entrepreneur, and the peculiar geographic concentration of Projekt’s recording artists.


Marc Weidenbaum: Please describe the process that led up to the very first album that Projekt released.

Sam Rosenthal (Projekt Records): Well, the first “album” on Projekt was a compilation cassette back in 1983. The process was getting some material from friends’ bands and then putting them in order and dubbing a few tapes at home. This was very lo-fi; it might have sold 25 copies in the first year! If you wanna talk about the first somewhat “legitimate” Projekt release, then we’d be talking my 1986 vinyl LP, the rope, from my band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl. I’d definitely say that these days, the process of releasing a record is much easier and more straight forward. Computers have simplified everything along the way and there’s a lot of reputable places offering work. The album cover of the rope was really poorly printed by a place in Miami. They weren’t very interested in rerunning the job, when I pointed out the scuffs on every cover, or the upside-down spine! The vinyl itself sounded like it was cut with a fork. … ugh!

Weidenbaum: What was your emotional response to getting that record released? Were you relieved from the unforeseen complexity, thrilled at the final product?

Rosenthal: I would think that my main emotion was, “Aw man, this sucks.” I was so disappointed with the printing and pressing quality, that I limped away from the project vowing to do things differently in the future. Like I said, I think that these days people have a much better chance of getting a good quality CD.

Weidenbaum: How are your emotions different today when you release an album? Is the process more of a routine, is it still exciting every time, do you have a different response entirely?

Rosenthal: It’s definitely a routine. Sure, I sometimes get things back and go “Ack! I didn’t notice that weird symbol there in the lyrics …” but generally they come back and they are close enough for rock’n’roll. I can’t say there is a sense of joyous celebration when I get my album back, because so much time and energy has been put into it, that it’s really a sigh of relief that it’s done.

Weidenbaum: How do you think your being a musician influences how you operate your label?

Rosenthal: I treat my artists the way I would want a label to treat me. I look out for their best interests — Projekt also serves, pretty much, as our artists’ managers, making decisions of that kind for them — and pay them on time. … I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way.

Weidenbaum: How far ahead do you plan — do you know exactly what Projekt is releasing this year, or does the size of your label allow you to act more spontaneously? By early January of 2002, your website listed information for the first half of the year.

Rosenthal: I plan about seven months ahead, but there’s always room for improvising. For example, in November Steve Roach said he had an album done and wondered if I could get it out sooner than later. Because Steve’s releases are really ready to roll when he gets them to me, I was able to push it to the first slot of the year and have it out January 22. On the other hand, I have a vague idea of what’s coming out in the fall. I think you need to have the ability to do both.

Weidenbaum: Is there something uniquely “American” about the music your label releases, or the way you do business? I’m thinking of Steve Roach’s environment-informed soundscapes, for example, or about aspects of America’s goth-music community.

Rosenthal: I never think about it as “an American label” even though most of the artists are American. I think it’s much easier for me to work American bands, because I know the way things work here and because the bands already have some of their own promotions going. What’s really weird is that five of the bands live in Arizona. What is that all about!?!

Weidenbaum: Is there another small record label that served as a role model for you when you were getting Projekt started?

Rosenthal: No.

Weidenbaum: Are there other small labels today with which Projekt works particularly closely, for mutual support?

Rosenthal: Hmm. I’d say that Charles at Soleilmoon is my closest record-label friend, even though our labels don’t really work together that much. We definitely share advice and have an artist or two that have recorded for both labels. Sadly, there really aren’t many little ethereal labels around, anymore, except for Neue Aesthetik, who we’re friends with. I’m also quite good friends with a few of the people at Metropolis; Athan [Maroulis] (formerly of Spahn Ranch) actually sings on Black Tape’s new album, the scavenger bride (due in April).

Into the Mystic

When Peter Jackson, the inspired director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, required female voices to further enchant the soundtrack to the series’ first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, he rang up two singers from the British Isles.

One was Scotland-born Elizabeth Fraser, of the fragile pop group Cocteau Twins. The other was Ireland-born Enya, the lilting atmospherist whose name is a registered trademark and who is a hobbit-hole industry, if not a genre, unto herself.

During the film’s production, Jackson had no way of knowing that by the time Fellowship and its souvenir soundtrack CD, available on the Reprise record label, were released this past Christmas, Enya’s voice would have taken on added significance in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But so it has.

Enya’s brand of Celtic mysticism is loved and despised by many — and has its roots in an earlier pop-music evocation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology. Hearing her intone cryptic syllables amid composer Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring (she and Fraser sing, largely, not in English, but in a fictional faerie-speak), one can’t help but think of Sandy Denny singing on Led Zeppelin’s classic-rock staple, “The Battle of Evermore.”

Zeppelin visited the treacherous geography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth several times in its career, as early as the band’s second album, on the song “Ramble On,” in which Robert Plant name-dropped both a locale and a leading antagonist from The Lord of the Rings, “‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair/ But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her,” and punctuated it with a knowing “Yeah.”

Later, on Zeppelin’s fourth album, in “The Battle of Evermore,” the fair girl was revealed to be Sandy Denny. Despite Denny’s role as one of the principals of the British folk resurgence of the 1960s, she is primarily known to the broader pop-music audience for the words she utters in that single song, beginning with, “Oh, dance in the dark of night/ Sing to the morning light.”

With her hypnotic “dance in the dark of night” phrasing, Denny encapsulated in 1971, the year of “Evermore”‘s release, what has since become one of the traditional roles for women in pop music: the lacey muse. You can hear much of Stevie Nicks’ career, with and without Fleetwood Mac, summarized in the way Denny trills that couplet. You can also hear Kate Bush’s Renaissance Faire warbling, and, by extension, Tori Amos’ — Amos who, of course, inspired fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, a Tolkien devotee, to create a loopy redheaded goddess named Delirium in his comic-book franchise, The Sandman.

Sandy Denny, who passed away in 1978, was one of the core members of the U.K. folk-rock group Fairport Convention (which also gave us guitarist Richard Thompson). Fairport was doubtlessly a role model for Clannad, the Irish band that launched Enya’s career. Enya wasn’t a founding member of Clannad; she joined her older sister’s group in the late ’70s and left a few years later. The success of Enya’s 1988 solo album, Watermark, set her up henceforth as one of the vaguest stars in all of pop music. Like Sade, her lounge-soul analogue, Enya records and tours infrequently, and her limited public presence, like the expertly burnished silence that defines her music, plays a large role in keeping her star power strong.

A Day Without Rain, Enya’s last album before her work with Jackson on Lord of the Rings, was released in late 2000, five years after her previous record, 1995’s The Memory of Trees. Her previous album to that, 1991’s Shepherd Moons, featured a song titled “Lothlorien,” named for a region in Tolkien’s Rings mythology, which was no doubt on the mind of Fellowship director Jackson when he commissioned her. (Hey, it could have been worse. Director Jackson might instead have turned to jazz fusion act Shadowfax, which took its name from Gandalf’s horse.)

Jackson wasn’t the only person to ring Enya during a time of need. This is the same Enya whom many Americans called upon in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A Day Without Rain was released in late 2000 and had sold strongly throughout 2001, but in the weeks following the catastrophic deaths in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., the record’s quietly distinctive single, “Only Time,” offered a salve across the country and pushed the album back into the Billboard Top 10. The album’s title — that image of a calm within a storm — appears to have been an eerily prescient metaphor for the role that Enya’s music played in a lot of people’s lives.

There may be a specific reason, beyond her music’s innate calming influence (well, except for those who find her saccharine and nonsensical), why Americans associated Enya’s album with peace. A Day Without Rain was released on Nov. 21, 2000, dead center between the Nov. 7 U.S. presidential election and Dec. 16, when Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush. Throughout those attenuated weeks, Enya’s popular single, “Only Time,” played on the radio as an unofficial theme song of the unprecedented political drama. In any case, A Day Without Rain remained a top seller for the full year that followed. And, like President Bush, it saw its popularity rise during wartime. The song “Only Time,” whatever you think of Enya’s music overall, became a lullaby of thoughtfulness at a moment when broadcast news services were playing synthesized militaristic anthems to dramatize their 24-hour reportage.

It’s a shame that Elizabeth Fraser, who performs “Lament for Gandalf” in the Fellowship film, is not as widely heard as Enya. Fraser’s former group, Cocteau Twins, produced a broad catalog of quiet incantations, and worked with the esteemed minimalist composer Harold Budd. Like Sandy Denny, Fraser may be best known for her contribution to another group’s song: “Teardop” off the album Mezzanine by Massive Attack, a favorite in upscale shopping malls everywhere. Frankly, there is much quiet pop music lost in the long shadow cast by Enya, two recent records in particular:

Scott Tuma’s Hard Again (Truckstop) has been compared with the work of John Fahey, as has the music of his former band, Souled American — all of which is true enough, but not necessarily helpful because Fahey’s music, a philosophical brand of Americana, is criminally underheard. Fahey passed away just shy of his 62nd birthday, a few months before Hard Again‘s release last year, and there’s been no more-fitting tribute. It’s an album virtually free of vocals, capturing all the beauty of country and folk music without ever dangling a true hook, let alone a verse or a chorus. This is, to use the word twice in a single column, attenuated music — music featuring familiar instruments (guitar, bass and the drums of Jim White, best known as a member of the instrumental rock act Dirty Three) and familiar techniques (experimental overdubbing, for example), but the result is mysterious and beautiful.

As with Tuma’s album, each of the songs on Cinemascope (ML/I), by the German act Monolake, begins as one might expect a normal pop song to begin. In Monolake’s case, the sounds aren’t the humble strummings of an alt.country tune, but the deep house beats of an electronica single. When lyrics fail to arrive, the background comes into the foreground. With its subdued rhythms and rudimentary palette, Cinemascope recalls the drive-by-night techno of Underworld and the antiseptic throb of Richie Hawtin. Monolake explores familiar elements of pop music in a manner that sheds new light. Two standout tracks are “Alpenrausch,” which mimics a simple hip-hop drum loop, and “Ionized,” which must be the most extreme reduction of the Bo Diddley beat ever recorded. If you appreciate the Diddley beat as one of pop music’s great spices, then you must sample this highly condensed rendition.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, February 2002.