The North Sea - Snakeroot Ceremony / Thousands - Sand and Stone / Rob Funkhouser - Allegory of the Cave (Phantom Limb Recordings CD-Rs)
What's with all the fascination with spectral extremities lately? Was the syndrome referenced in, like, the Da Vinci Code or some other hip book or movie that I just haven't picked up on? First there's this local group in the area called Ghost Limbs I think, then there's the new Pig Destroyer album "Phantom Limb" (which rules and I'll review it if I ever find it), and Wikipedia tells me that even the Shins have a song called "Phantom Limb". Well now (VxPxCx)'s record label shares the same title and I'm starting to get pretty baffled. Whatever the case may be, I was recently sent a batch of recet Phantom Limb titles, though I had to exclude a couple of the tastier looking ones ((VxPxC's "Of Determinate Age" and Fantastic Ego's "Ego Trips the Light Fantastic") in the interest of time and relevance. So these are a few of their latest. They were the latest but I'm so behind that they've managed to put out Cahier, Bjerga/Iversen and Fantastic Sleep records in the meantime. Either I'm too slow or some of these cats put out way too many records. Maybe both.
I was forever under the impression that the North Sea were some kind of post-rock band, although maybe there really is a post-rock band with "North" in the title that I'm mixing em up with (One Mile North, maybe? Is that a real band?). Either way, I probably couldn't have been further from the mark if I tried. The North Sea is actually one guy named Brad Rose, who's also responsible for the Digitalis Industries empire (Foxy Digitalis, Foxglove, Digitalis Recordings/Productions, you know). I probably would've checked out his stuff sooner if I hadn't thought that I already knew what it was. I can imagine a hilarious, sitcom-esque scenario in which I spake the words "no don't bother with the North Sea, they're shit" all the while thinking of a totally different act entirely! Well, maybe Brad Rose doesn't find it funny, as I could have already cost him hundreds of thousands of untold dollars in album sales. But he seems to have done okay so far without my help, so I'll just talk about his "Snakeroot Ceremony" CD-R instead. Packaged inside one of those fancy fold-out cardboard sleeves with a stamped CD-Rs (I hear Brad hates spraypainted CD-Rs, which I think is the direct result of running any sort of music reviewing thing because I've experienced it too and I think if you send one to Tom Lax he breaks it over his knee and stick the shards up your nose), "Snakeroot Ceremony" is a pretty nice set of folky, acoustic bouzouki jams, six tracks spread out over a half-hour. Not too often you hear the bouzouki trotted out lately but Rose knows his way around the instrument to be sure, sounding at his peak like Sandy Bull, especially taking into consideration the shared smokiness of the two artists' recordings. Most of the tracks on "Snakeroot" bring to mind images of cots in attics in summertime, dusty chests and sun-bleached floorboards galore, possibly at granny's house, and that's a nice thing. You can hear it best and most on the closing epic "The Sea Sang "Hallelujah"", easily the best of the bunch, although I can't say Rose hones in on Bull's virtuosity, but then again, who does? Overall it slots along nicely between maybe an instrumental Charalambides session (although Brad does offer up some mumbles on "Evergreen Lore"), and similar to certain Six Organs of Admittance records, he adds in nice flecks of chimes or harmonium or harmonica and even some jangly, makeshift percussion on "Roots & Weeds". Personally I had a nice experience with the album when the last notes dwindled away and the evening birdsong outside my window filtered in serving as a fitting coda to this summer soliloquy. Not very earth-shattering but adept enough that I can't fault it for anything either.
I was quite looking forward to this release by Thousands, which is a group (one-off?) that features members of (VxPxC), Fantastic Ego, and Antique Brothers. Two reasons for this - firstly I'm still bowled over from the "Reticent to Manifest" tape from (VxPxCx) I reviewed not too long ago, and secondly it was recorded "live in the Joshua Tree desert with only battery powered and acoustic instruments, and the coyotes' howl". Man, right on. (VxPxCx)'s groovy and coyotes just rule, so what's not to love? AND you're telling me it was recorded at Bono's home studio?? Ha ha! Just kidding. But really, deserts are rad too so this seemed like a can't-miss prospect here. I was thinking the more acoustic outdoor jammers the merrier in terms of personnel for this one, but it's really not very merry at all. I guess the fact that they're working battery-powered means this session had to be pretty well toned down, which I can appreciate, but there must've been more options soundwise than the washed-out, lazy, lo-fi, ambient drivel that occupies almost every minute of "Sand and Stone"'s hour-long running time. Pretty much every song (seven in all) comes and goes without so much as a single memorable note sticking to the inner walls of my cranium. Only on the closing epic (hey, I'm noticing a trend here) "The Hierophant Speaks" does the quartet ever start to congeal into something worth latching onto - a hushed, minimal rhythmic interplay a la Thuja et al that ends up being all too brief. The track lasts a good 17ish minutes but quickly abandons this idea in search of other, more formless and tedious excursions. There are brief flashes throughout the record that hit a general "what could have been" feeling when listening, but that's about it. Everybody's heard about (oftentimes lived) the Classic Band Experience where you stay awake the entire night, high out of your collective mind, writing the single greatest artistic statement of your career, only to wake up the next morning to play it back and realize that it's total bullshit? I don't mean to be too savage but it sounds to me like nobody played this one back the morning after.
I gotta say that Rob Funkhouser sounds more like an 80's jerry-curled rap star than a proliferator of electronic music, but what's really in a name anyway? "Allegory of the Cave" is a 40-ish minute-long piece, and though it's definitely a singular composition, it also moves through very distinct sections, or acts if you prefer. This is the Midwestern's debut release, and a whole lot of electronic or processed gear is put to work over the course of this record, most likely including laptops, pedals, synthesizers, Moogs, keyboards tuned to sound suspiciously like wind instruments, xylophones, and so on. Or maybe not. With gadgets in tow, Funkhouser has created a slow-shifting icy whale of a piece - early on there are pretty clear comparisons to be made with Steve Reich's tape manipulations (even if Rob is working with different medium), although later on I pick up on more Hermann Nitschian sensibilities, specifically what almost sounds like a reinvention of his "Harmoniumwerks" drones, overlayed with Conrad Schnitzler squiggles and Brian Eno's holy ambience. At about the halfway point, an endlessly plunked xylophone/toy piano/whatever lends a layer of sinister haunt to the drone, like hearing a child's music box go off in a dark room and trying to figure out which closet it's coming from. Otherwise, the lush synthetic drone swathes underneath, prividing a sublime and dream-like foundation over which Funkhouser works. Another act brings back around the processed flute-like sounds from the beginning of the disc set against a watery submersion, only to close off with curious tropical-sounding percussive notes that really brings things full circle when it begins to recall the pianos on Reich's "Different Trains". It's nice. Strange and strangely amorphous, but nice, and enough to keep your ears pricked up for whatever else this guy's got on tap.
I should probably also mention that although the Thousands release came in the same cardboard fold-out as the North Sea, the remaining three (Funkhouser and the two not reviewed) are in amaray cases with full colour printed inserts. And they're all limited to around 90 units each. Best bang for your buck in my humble opinion is the North Sea, but at $7 U.S./$9 world per, there's plenty of bang to go around.
The North Sea - Evergreen Lore
Thousands - Horizons of Waste
Rob Funkhouser - Allegory of the Cave (excerpt)