Two Compilations / One Review

Two compilations come out this week that at first glance may seem dissimilar to each other, but on further inspection, the aims and goals of both seem to seek the same path. Both compilations are curated by individuals wishing to bring the unheard into the light. Simultaneously both compilations focus on the obscure, giving a wider audience to musicians and artists who veered away from the course and furthered the evolutionary process of experimental, abstract and avant garde musics. 

Stain, Crack & Break (LP/DL)

The new Finders Keepers release Stain, Crack & Break, Volume 1 (France) is a collection curated by Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound. Nurse With Wound’s seminal debut, 1979’s Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella is revered as a classic in the avant garde canon for its genius blending of tape manipulation, found sounds, industrial and musique concrete. Generations of divergent experimental musicians have generated much inspiration and it has garnered a must listen to status among anyone interested in outsider types of music. Intriguingly, Stapleton along with bandmates John Fothergill and Heman Pathak compiled a staggering list of 291 artists that served as inspirations to the group.

This list was embedded in the artwork of the album and the relative obscurity of most of the artists on the list caused some to think a lot of these were made up out of the band’s imagination as a lark or prank. As the band gained more notice so did this list and eventually the list grew in legend and became the pantheon of avid music listeners interested in the esoteric, weird, odd, avant or anything considered outsider art. Over time NWW became the forebears of outsider art and these obscure artists became more well known to experimental musicians, listeners and artists. Discogs nerds with unlimited resources have also made the records on this list some sort of Holy Grail of oddball record collecting. The list only grew in stature and legend.

My own experience with the list was sort of backwards to most. I found out about the NWW list by its inclusion of a musician who was on it. In my earlier years I was enamored with the odd, epic music of Frenchman Igor Wakevitch. His six albums spanning the years 1970-1979 were beautiful, maddening, epic, brilliant, funny, genius and just plain weird. Perfect for me at the time as I was going through a stage of finding the most challenging, weird and oddball music I could find. After collaborating on an album with Salvador Dali (??!!) called Etre Dieu he seemingly fell off the face of the planet.

In the young internet age I spent much time in front of the computer desperately trying to find out more about the reclusive, secretive Wakhevitch. It was during these searches that I found out about the NWW list. Wakhevitch is represented here by an excerpt of Materia Prima which stands as one of ‘Stains’ best tracks. Materia presents a visual of a fever dream and as the track progresses ends with a blissed out hallucinogenic awakening of drug-induced rock and roll excesses. A clever ruse indeed by a composer who mostly wrote for avant garde dance and opera. Materia Prima here is included as a 4 minute excerpt. The full track can be heard on Wakhevtich’s 1971 magnum opus Docteur Faust.

The best thing about Stain, Crack & Break is that it is thankfully followed by “Volume One” in the title. Outsider and anti music lovers can rejoice and be comforted by the fact that two more volumes have already been compiled and will focus on German artists on the NWW list. This volume focuses on France. Volume One takes the listener on a myriad of divergent moods and genres. Highlights of which there are many include Phillippe Besombe’s La Plage, a dark and mysterious track brimming with indecipherable vocals and simmering electronics.

Other tracks are lighter, even bordering on whimsy like Mahjun’s childlike percussion and alto saxophone blowout Les Enfants Sauvages  and Etron Fou Leloublan’s genre hopping Le Desatreaux Voyage Du Piteux Python. The amount of genres and stylistic changes Etron traverses in the course of their 10 minute odyssey would make any diehard fan of Mr. Bungle blush. Red Noise’s avant rock/free jazz 15 minute blow out Sarcelles C’est L’avenir serves as a type of centerpiece for the album glorying in the excesses of rock and jazz psychedelica.

My pick for the album’s most rewarding track is another schizophrenic genre hopper but one that works a little more cohesively than the aforementioned Le Desatreaux…..Horrific Child’s Frayeur seamlessly travels from psych prog to Voodoo styled polyrhythmic percussion to spoken ritualistic vocals stopping for balafon type percussion interludes and group chants. The track is from the group’s only release, 1976’s L’Entrange Mr Whinster. Also of note is the inclusion of musique concrete pioneer Pierre Henry with his brief and haunting Generique. 

Stain Crack & Break is a dream for someone who is endowed with a need to seek out non-conformist, outsider art. It’s a history lesson, musical education and a snapshot into a region (France) and an era (1960’s and 70’s) The thing about finding a piece of obscure music that brings one enjoyment and a sense of wonder is trying to tell everyone you know about it. It’s like having a secret no one knows about it. The original inclusion of the list in the NWW record was meant as a massive “Hey guys, look what WE found!” And listeners went out and found this wonderfully strange, beautiful music. And 40 years later with the release of this compilation, it’s still working. I know as soon as I finish writing this I am going to see if I can find a copy of that Horrific Child album. See? It works. Thanks for letting me in on the secret, Mr. Stapleton. 

Anthology Of Contemporary Music From The Middle East (CD/DL)

The second compilation reviewed in this piece comes from a completely different time and era but following the same aims and aesthetic. This compilation comes to us from the Middle East via Italy. Raffaele Pezzella has been building an empire around bringing unexplained auditory occurrences into the world via his Unexplained Sounds label and its offshoot label Eighth Tower, which focuses on dark ambient. In addition to running these two fascinating and rewarding labels he records under the moniker Sonologyst, offers mastering services, runs a group page on Facebook and hosts a weekly radio program called Unexplained Sounds – The Recognition Test. His label Unexplained Sounds has in recent history been focusing more on unexplored places as opposed to unexplained sounds.

His anthologies on experimental, contemporary music from around the globe has been bringing to the forefront experimental music from artists who might not get a worldwide exposure otherwise. Experimental works have been mined from more popular countries over the years but Pezzella seems to relish in introducing experimental music from places that have not been known as hotbeds of experimentation. Goes to show what a little digging will do.

Past volumes have focused on Africa, Lebanon, Iran, the Balkans and Latin America. For this newest volume Anthology Of Contemporary Music From The Middle East released September 7, Pezzella focuses on artists from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Afghanistan and Cyprus. And much like the preceding compilation, the sounds, moods and stylistic choices are just as different and divergent as the countries represented.

The disc starts with the light, pretty and hypnotic electronica of Ahmed Saleh’s Feryal. The track is a fitting prelude to the more epic, bombastic, trance inducing and cinematically minded Asir-e Jangi by Naujawanan Baldar. The track is taken from the 2017 release Volume 1 and does an excellent job of keeping one foot forward sonically while also giving nods to the past. Pezzella does an excellent job with the transitioning of the tracks on the compilation as the next track Desendence by Afghanistan’s Bloom Tribe segues into skittering electronics, drones and otherworldly soundscapes.

Cenk Ergun’s Bir is another departure and has the albums first track that would be at home with an avant garde label. The Turkish composer uses disorienting passages and time signatures that make for a unique approach to standard song format. The alternate tuning systems give the listener a feeling of being out at sea inundated by waves. Nilufer Ormanli’s Art Of Dying‘s ceremonial processes sound as if you stumbled upon an ancient rite that maybe you shouldn’t be witnessing. Eerie and touching on the periphery of darkness the track ends terrifyingly with drones and demonic voices.

Palestinian born Pharoah Chromium’s track Gaza Requeim tells a story through sound of the perpetual war and heartache of the Gaza community and nation. Epic in scope, the Pharoah project is a pseudonym of Ghazi Barakat. On this track he uses sounds that showcase the fear of a region constantly embroiled in or under the impending threat of war. Helicopters float in and out of drones and shimmering electronic soundscapes. It’s probably the most most affecting track and works well in the middle of the album.

As a contrast to the preceding track Ahmed Saleh makes a second appearance with the beautiful, piano laden Khitam offering a glimmer of hope and assurance to the listener. Guy Gelem’s Parallels may be the most traditionally minded track on the album infusing mournful cello, drones and steady hypnotic drumming to invoke to the listener a sense of Israel as an auditory idea. As even more contrast Mazen Kerbaj’s The Acoustic Synthesizer recalls the noisier elements of Sun Ra’s most chaotic and cacophonous keyboard exercises that bordered on the outer edges of excess.

Yousef Kawar’s Nerves is almost just as strange but a little more cohesive and just as uninviting. Dimitris Savva’s Thalassa is 9 minutes of ambient beauty augmented by cresending waves and beautiful soundscapes. It is a highlight on an album that has many. Nyctalllz’s The Humanity Demise sounds like it would be at home on one of the label’s earlier forays into actual unexplained sounds. The track is horrifying and elicits a sense of dread and mystery in its execution.

Both of these albums should be contenders for any end of year “Best Of…” list. Steven Stapleton and Raffaele Pezzella will continue to bring the world new insights and unknown artists into the realm of the avant garde and experimental, creating more excitement and anticipation into both of these intriguing areas of auditory study. Both are at work creating new volumes in their respective areas of curation. I am so glad and excited I get to go along for the ride.  

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