Adam Frank & Sam Shalabi - Overpass! A Melodrama / Alexandre St-Onge - Mon Animal Est Possible (Alien8 Recordings CDs)
After a relatively lengthy downtime, Alien8 seem to be hitting their stride again, with recent releases from Nadja and Lesbians on Ecstacy (Nadja plays feminist electro-pop/punk while LoE plays doom metal, FYI) and these two new curios rooted in Montreal's experimental music scene. The former comes courtesy Sam Shalabi (himself seemingly quieter lately, maybe holed up working on this) and Adam Frank, teacher of American literature at the University of British Columbia. As to why a university teacher's got top billing on an experimental music record, I'll touch on that in a sec. Meanwhile Alexandre St-Onge doesn't release a whole lot under his own name, but you've probably heard at least one record featuring his work. In addition to solo records on Alien8 and Squint Fucker Press, he's played and recorded with Fly Pan Am, Klaxon Gueule, Molasses, Et Sans, Feu Therese, Undo, and the Ambiences Magnetiques ensemble, not to mention a trio with David Kristian and Sam Shalabi himself.
When it comes to Frank and Shalabi's record, "Overpass! A Melodrama" ain't just a funny name - this really is a melodrama, and it's really about an overpass, in Vancouver. The backstory's pretty long to get into here, but it comes down to this: in 1971, a pedestrian overpass was constructed over a set of train tracks to facilitate school children crossing to the other side without having to crawl through/around/under the parked train they would habitually encounter every morning on their way to elementary. A group of mothers (the so-called "militant mothers"), fearful for their children's safety, took matters into their own hands and forced the city's hand by standing in front of and blocking an oncoming train and building a tent on the tracks in protest. Some court battles and a long story later, the mothers won and the city agreed to build the Keefer Street pedestrian overpass: a strange, slippery, turquoise-green chainlink enclosure that, according to Frank's liner notes (he also wrote the libretto), "[had] become a symbol of victorious political action" for the people who live near it (and make use of it). Sound like a weird thing to write a musical opera about? It is, and the word "weird" itself appears numerous times both in Frank's text and just about any other press I see regarding the album. Essentially, Frank and Shalabi's goal is to "[offer] an entertaining investigation into the consequences of incomplete modernization"...so says the label. "Overpass!" is written and performed in the style of an opera or a play, with Shalabi (accompanied by Josh Stevenson, Kate Lawrence, Jeff Allport, and Rob Sparks)'s music providing the backdrop for the actors' voices to spin their yarns over top. The basic plot outline is that the narrator Antonia arrives in Vancouver and tries to make her way around the confusing quasi-urban landscape, meeting Merv, an assistant to the city engineer, at a party. Later she happens upon the overpass and ponders its significance, before meeting Merv again to engage in a final conversation. It's a fairly loose narrative to say the least, often bordering on surreal. There's a synopsis included but it doesn't give away all the secrets either, so you'll have to listen to what's being said, and "Overpass!" really is largely about the spoken word. Although I found it happening frequently where a great chunk of music will seep into your brain previously undetected and sorta coalesce into a beautiful melody before your ears - Shalabi's guitar is almost staggering when its full weight hits on the pulsing "Bad Parties", while "Brut, or Freeways and Their Discontents" boasts gnarled near-metal riffing and synth squall totally unlike any Shalabi-related anything I've come to know. The music is far form being mere background noise and often serves to add another dimension to what the characters are talking about: "A Structure" features commentary from Antonia spoken from a perspective of being on the bridge itself, which the music conveys alarmingly well via a mix of groaning, uneasy ambience and chainlink jangle; "Back on the Tracks" combines interview snippets and archival quotes from the mothers involved in the court case with an ominous smattering of near-trip hop electronic collage, mirroring the pessimism and doubt expressed in the audio clips. The final track, "Jello Sunday (Nature Wins Again)" is the last dialogue between Antonia and Merv and is wholly unintelligible without following along with the libretto, and even then it doesn't seem to conclude a whole lot...but the lovely folk song featuring Shalabi's sparkling guitar and Antonia (Annice Kesler)'s charming voice that functions as a coda to the album speaks volumes in terms of musical power alone.
I'm sure all that was confusing to read, as it was confusing to decipher and type up. The only real way to get your ahead somewhat around the record is to buy it, read it, and hear it, though I don't know how hasty I'd be to recommend that. Sonically it's interesting enough, somewhat of a cross between Robert Ashley's "Perfect Lives" operas and Sam Shalabi's own "Osama" record, but never at any point did the significance of this overpass ever resonate with me...not from the music, not from the words, not from the back story or the synopsis or anything. Either I just don't get it or Frank and Shalabi didn't do a good enough job of making me get it, though that could've been their intentions all along. You may not have to be in love to be moved by a love song, but I think if I'd at least seen this overpass myself or lived with it, I could understand it's purported "weirdness" that made it worth writing about and dedicating a whole album to. An impressive and ambitious undertaking, regardless.
Switching gears now to talk about "Mon Animal Est Possible", Alexandre St-Onge's new solo record featuring partner Fanny. The story here is that these eight songs were written as a way for St-Onge to "communicate with monsters" and exorcise his own monstrosity through them, hence the title: making possible his own animal. It's a bit of a Franglo colloquialism, I guess. Well anyway, I've never really heard a St-Onge solo release (a friend played a record of his a few years ago for me but I can't say I remember it well), but these love songs seemingly go for the jugular in their own shadowy way - there's a healthy batch of ultra-minimal electronica-bred stasis to be found on "Animal", born out of the use of what sounds like Moog synthesizers, keyboard, laptop, theremin, probably guitar and bass, and Alexandre and Fanny's own voices. I gotta confess that Fanny's heavy breathing on "La Passion de la Transparence" sounds like what I was desperately hoping to hear from that miserable Air/Charlotte Gainsbourg collaboration that came out recently...I guess you could say Fanny's playing Charlotte (or Brigitte or Jane, really) to St-Onge's Air, but the glacial, glittery ambience that turns up here is far more interesting than anything I've ever heard from the former. I suppose a quick and easy reference point would be Alien8 pal Tim Hecker, though these pieces feature weirder, Aphexian bends and quirks, with haunting vocals brushed from corner to corner, at times sensitive and emotional and other times as distant and alien as an E.V.P. field recording. I also feel that I should bring up Popul Vuh as a strong reference point, but maybe that's because I'm a serious Popul Vuh kick lately. Really though, St-Onge's spectral floats and grainy meditations ain't too far removed from what Florian Fricke himself was hitting on in the seventies with all those Herzog soundtracks. St-Onge's bass seems to crop up briefly in "L'animal Chante Chou" and "Bébé" features glitchy laptop warble akin to Fennesz, but otherwise the tracks congeal together in an icy pool of sound that'll swallow you whole and threaten to suck your heart out of your chest and nothing could be nicer. Despite all the namedrops, it would be unfair for me to leave you with the impression that St-Onge is copping from the classics - every minute of "Animal" breathes with St-Onge's own breath and slowly unfurls to reveal an organic, mature, fully realized work on par with the likes of "Harmony in Ultr-" errr just trust me, it's a very good album and well worth your time and dollars.
Adam Frank & Sam Shalabi - Brut, or Freeways and Their Discontents
Adam Frank & Sam Shalabi - A Letter of Invitation
Alexandre St-Onge - L'extase Spectrale
Alexandre St-Onge - L'animal Chante Chou