AMN Reviews: BLK TAG – Impacted Wisdom [Fuzzy Panda] & Chester Hawkins – Natural Causes [Intangible Arts]

Within recent months a sense of anxiety and disquiet has become common among many musicians and other artists in the Washington, DC area. It’s a synchronicity of a kind that this atmosphere harmonizes with an enduring current among the DC area’s experimental music scene. Although hardly unique to DC area artists, it nevertheless has been well-represented here; it consists in a predilection for layered slabs of generally thickly textured, darkly-shaded electronic sounds analogous to the opaque concrete facades of weathered Brutalist architecture. (Admittedly, all analogies by nature contain an element of imprecision, not least those drawn between music and other art forms, but still…) Often taking the guise of drone-based, long-form compositions or improvisations, this music is likely to institute movement through slow timbral or textural change rather than through melodic or harmonic development. A pair of new releases by three longtime DC area electronics artists, both of which appear as vinyl LPs and as digital downloads, retains some of the characteristics of the basic sound—a fine example of which could be heard in a recent electroacoustic set by Jeff Surak at Rhizome DC’s Maple House–but with developments and refinements distinctly these artists’ own. (Disclosure: The artists discussed here are friends, colleagues, and occasional collaborators.)

Impacted Wisdom is a new issue from BLK TAG, a collaborative project of Chris Videll, aka Tag Cloud, and J.S. Adams, the artistic director for BLK w/BEAR and the turntable ensemble STYLUS. Videll has brought an almost subliminal melodic sensibility to heavy electronic drone; for this recording he uses his standard collection of various analogue electronics along with Tibetan bowls, bells, shruti box and harmonium, all of which are capable of generating thick, tonally-focused textures. Adams, who with BLK w/BEAR uses a miscellany of instruments and objects as well as provides conceptual structures that serve as compositional skeletons, here plays turntables spinning prepared vinyl, tapes, effects, loops and electronics. In addition to Videll and Adams’ sounds, the recording includes digital contributions by Doug Poplin, Guillermo Pizzaro and Gleb Kanasevich. Individually, Videll and Adams tend to structure their performances through textural variations, and that is the case collectively with the music on Impacted Wisdom. The seventeen-minute long Theeth opens with throbbing, droning chords that crest and recede in dynamic waves; the scuffle and click of Adams’ prepared vinyl emerge as the drone takes on a harsher edge and the atmosphere gradually becomes more oppressive. For a finale, Videll manipulates the timbre into something resembling the hum of an ungrounded appliance. Like Theeth, the shorter K231 HIDDEND RVS RMX is densely textured but somehow lighter in tone. It traces a slowly rising and falling dynamic arc as it develops through nuanced shifts in the timbral surface.

Chester Hawkins’ Natural Causes is a soundtrack recording for the film Pale Trees by filmmaker Tim Ashby. Hawkins, the artist formerly known as Blue Sausage Infant, has over the years developed a sound based on thick electronic washes overlaid on brief, looped phrases. With Natural Causes Hawkins refines the rawer surfaces of his earlier work, analogous to measuring and cutting heavy slabs into regular blocks incised with recurring designs. Throughout much of this new piece he sets up sequenced phrases to function as ostinati, giving the music the character of beat-driven drone. Rhythm is the basic organizational principle at work, as variations in tempo and the lengths of repeated phrases serve as structural landmarks distinguishing sections within the whole. In order to accommodate the LP format the piece is broken up into two side-long parts, but the division doesn’t prevent the sound from inducing an enveloping, hypnotic effect.

Daniel Barbiero