Gaseous Acolyte / a body without organs / Vomir / [Untitled] – “Untitled Four Way” [Small Worm, 2020]

Gaseous Acolyte / abodywithoutorgans / Vomir / [Untitled]
Untitled Four Way
[Small Worm, 2020]

Small Worm is a small-batch tape label directed by James Shearman, a multi-disciplinary artist based in the United Kingdom, which focuses on “experiments, mishaps, rummaging, field recording, grievous chaotic din, rabble-rousing, wall noise, Styx ferryman whistling tunes, children’s rhymes in dead languages, animal mating calls, number station remixes and anything else.” A heady list but one that certainly speaks to the role Mr. Shearman has accidentally taken as one of harsh noise wall’s most important archivists, mentors, theorists, and practitioners.

November 23rd sees an inaugural batch dispersed from his Small Worm garden in 2020. Mostly swimming in the dirt of obscure, challenging, but surprisingly densely-populated genres like hnw, ambient noise wall, and obsessive expressions of maxi-minimalism, the conundrum Small Worm and countless other devoted net/tape labels often face is an effective way to synthesize these vastly varying areas of interest, intention, study, and sound into consumable servings for the general public. Luckily, with a 4-way split included in this latest bucketful, we have a splendid sample size to do the trick.

Side A begins with a near ten minute piece from Gaseous Acolyte, a mysterious but benevolent side-project courtesy of James himself. The track is mostly static and unmoving, which will satisfy the purists that Shearman’s discography constantly terrorizes, but the breadth of sound within the core of this wall is, perhaps obviously, more subtly shaped and sculpted than the Vomir wall that mirrors it on Side B. Here, the body of the wall is rounded, contained, almost perceivable, spilling over edges – and then seemingly it stretches out or falls forever. It makes me consider the way my lungs have a certain capacity, yet I would not have the first idea of how to measure or quantify it for you here. I bring breath into my body, and within me it is within every part of me I know of, but I can’t speak much more to it than that.

Gaseous Acolyte’s side reads to me like a long book that was gently opened, it’s pages intact and, invariably, beyond or behind us. This is a characteristic of a lot of the wall noise I enjoy. There’s a sensation of open-ended storytelling between the listener and the performer. Flapping lazily in a breeze, the obscured implication of narrative juxtaposes the finality of the sonic product we are often gifted in the genre. A wall. Vomir’s distillation of finality doesn’t seek to juxtapose, however, and fuck all if it inspires someone like me to write at such length about it in the first place. If there’s one thing Vomir’s music seeks to invalidate, it’s intention. Rather than opening a book for us, Vomir hands us torn out pages, and we are to be thankful at that. 

Regardless of ethos, both of the walls are immense. Gaseous at times gives the impression of synthesis, with moments, textures, and tones resembling wind, burning fire, and the gentle rumble of moving earth bringing to mind some massive ash borer many miles away, deep and working. Vomir is suffocating to a similar effect but by more direct means. 15 minutes of gunmetal harsh noise wall. There is the hint of some dynamic source underneath directing the movement of the piece, rattling, submissive to its terrible motion. It comes very close to breaking out of the massive blanket of distortion that is Vomir’s signature, but the brutal violence of the wall ultimately manages to contain it, eventually suffocating it of all movement. 

This totality in the two true wall pieces on the split is beautifully emphasized and also completely transformed with the inclusion of a body without organs’ material, the three pieces which finish Side A. Contrasting beautifully with the relaxing “immersion” wall Gaseous employed, abwoo, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, manages to hold its own in a harsh noise wall release despite being a far more experimental and collage-driven project (and also without organs).

The three tracks here alter the emotional trajectory of the release as a whole, introducing warped space age samples of garbled German public-service-announcements, dial-up tones, and some beautifully subtle drones that barely commit to existing at all, to name a few. The second movement is the highlight of the split, and represents a sort of deconstructed wall approach which gives the tape a much needed sense of urgency and adventurousness. Rather than a plateau of sound, abwoo gives us a roaring river; glitched pulses of massive feedback, oscillating, sharp warnings of sine waves and careening anthemic harsh noise. It’s ultimately relaxing, surprisingly, massaging my ears with a heavy and confident low-end that bounces my headphones dreamily on the surface of the hood I have pulled over my head. It’s like some as-seen-on-tv relaxation device I find in the back aisles of a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. One that has been fucked beyond all belief by the sticky hands of children, corrosive cleaning fluids, and rouge microwave signals. Relaxing, but oddly threatening, like a ball of light that you are terrified to touch for fear of shock or burn.

The final section on the split, “Open Content,” is a contribution from [Untitled], a project courtesy of Richard and Sean Ramirez-Matzus, two names synonymous with decades of legendary, genre-spanning experimental noise releases. Their track opens with some ambient noise wall not too unlike the precedent Gaseous established in the opener. It’s a continuation of the tape’s flirting with some of the more quiet “immersion” walls that are becoming a popular alternative to the “play it fucking loud” status quo of the harsh noise wall scene. It’s still quite distorted though, especially when cranked, and eventually, in classic Ramirez form, industrial source makes its way into frame, complimenting the cold dead pre-amp static that is the foundation with haunting repetitions of wheezing, whining, scraping, and applications of pressure on perhaps a large metal object. All in all, the [Untitled] quarter of this tape is another essential moment, similar to abwoo’s, both being a clever divergence from the rigidity of noise wall that, without it, would otherwise make this tape a more sneakily grueling listen.

Instead, this split is a telling document of what makes Shearman and his curation such an enigmatic force. He manifests a distinct intersection of war-hardened veterans and isolated and fearless experimentalists and summarily injects them with his own unassuming, unpretentious, and rather humanistic approach to wall noise. This tape is successful because it is willed by a genuine sense of discipline, but not afraid to be vulnerable and forego convention. Classic worm. Here’s to many more.

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen – “Locations” [That’s Cool Records, 2020]

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen
[That’s Cool Records, 2020]

That’s Cool Records is an independent experimental record label founded in 2011 by Steve Jansen, a jack-of-all-sonic-trades from the southwestern corners of the United States who, after endless befuddled minutes of ham-fisted independent research, is confirmed to be not Steve Jansen of Japan, itself not a country. Locations is the 55th release in the TCR catalog, a collaboration between Jansen and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, “the man with the bass,” one of Norway’s most prolific and talented expatriates, who on this recording accompanies Jansen’s tape, guitar, and saxophone work with a combination of electric and acoustic basses.

Locations opens in medias res, almost as if Jansen’s manipulation of various frequencies and pseudo-percussive sound sources were readying a room for the duo’s work to reside in (the first of the many diverse moments the record seeks to make tangible the concept of space). Flaten’s bass is gently passive, like he was just playing to pass the time until a chair was offered. Recorded originally in 2012 as a winter norther was approaching a “wooded backyard studio” in Texas Hill County, once the album gets moving and a certain sense of wary intimacy is established, it’s hard not to picture the two crammed so tightly in a small drafty shed that Jansen has to aim his guitar’s neck skyward to physically fit into the recording.

This feeling of closeness, or perhaps more fittingly tightness, manifests a sonic expression early on as the sound of strings, Jansen’s metallic, birdlike, and atonal, Flaten’s more natural and wooden – jerk over and over one another like a slowly falling stack of wiggling iron rods seeking a parallel. It’s claustrophobic for sure, but clanging finally to a silent place on the floor, “Movement and Stasis,” the third track, brings the record to a more morose and dejected space of dark jazz and rudimentary electronic manipulations of sine and static. Here, the record seems to find another “location,” a space akin to the image gracing the cover of the record. Gray, unnerving, perhaps miserable but at the very least definitely considering it, Jansen and Flaten together, as all effective collaborations do, create a curious and engaging palate. Rather than complimenting each other with a sonic aesthetic that would easily blend into a smooth and easily traversable surface, here the players instead seek to challenge the assertion of the other’s technique with differing severities of textures and urgencies to establish a genuine relationship therein. These are not necessarily moments of absolute polarity, but there is a certain bridging that needs to be established in order for the two to compliment each other.

As the record continues, this complementary dichotomy is redefined again and again (the word “and” even going so far as to being an important thematic reoccurrence through the release’s track titling), like the early stages of a romantic partnership; constantly reaffirming the trajectory and tragedy that flows through this record like pale smoke. Musical conventions are less so diluted here than other experimental works of the same milieu. Instead of seeking to reject the personality of one’s instrument for the sake of experimentation, removing oneself from popular tropes and sounds and playing styles, it is always refreshing to hear adventurous guitar that still sounds like guitar. Jansen’s electric playing recalls the eeriness of doom metal deftly without committing either to long-form chord drone or deconstructed riffing. Instead, the free jazz tendencies at the core of this release drive feedback-saturated works like “Sound and Silence,” shifting across the fretboard as if the violent motion of the guitar’s playing were more important than the resonance of the note that was struck.

A shift in “location” is again perceived at about the middle of the record, as “Strength and Sanity (Dedicated to Booker Little)” creeps into view with a decidedly more classical tape music-esque motif repeatedly and solemnly bellowing behind delay-ridden electrical work. Dirge-like and deceptively beautiful, it is one of the stronger moments on the record where a piece feels less like an experimentation than a distillation of focused emotion.

The mournful modus operandi of Locations continues into the record’s second half, as a yawning maw of drones and string bends, vaguely like whale-song, introduces “Before and After,” another piece more concerned with dread and distortion than development, certainly at this point in the record at least. Like the souls of the dead were themselves visiting Texas Hill County, the track further emphasizes the interesting ability the album has to flirt heavily to the “horror-movie-music-in-the-forest didactics” of its sonic elements without committing entirely to an aesthetic or listening space similar to releases in the dark ambient or dungeon noise scenes. These sounds don’t need the somber breath of a midi pipe organ to sound mournful, they don’t need ghoulish samples to sound haunted, and they certainly don’t need reverb to sound atmospheric. This is homegrown horror.

But surprisingly, this record tends to hold off from devolving fully into sonic realms frequented by fans of harsh noise and power electronics that might enjoy this brooding release. Even as moments of distortion and intense feedback are utilized, they are done so in such a well-mannered way that it never comes off as violent, nor even aggressive really, which is all the more sinister. The methods by which Jansen and Flaten seek to dismay and disarm you are instead through the alien quality of their instrumentation and playing styles. Uncertainty abounds as the tangible texture of the plethora of drones peppered throughout the album seemingly attempt to induce a sense of familiarity or precedent, but the foreground, which is more often made up of string-based free improvisation, gives a certain uncanny quality to an otherwise more-on-the-nose dark ambient release.  

“Life and Death” marks a welcome return of Flaten’s acoustic bass, an element that I do wish was much more prevalent on the bulk of the recording. Truth be told, I wonder if my ears are failing me (though I suppose collaborations such as this one might revel in the fact that I’m about to say this), but I can’t quite tell the difference between the qualities of Jansen’s electric guitar and Flaten’s electric bass. To me, it felt like the recording slowly drifted away from the set piece established in the instrumentation of its early moments. Maybe it’s fitting then, that this welcomed revisiting feels like a penultimate and referential “location” for the final act of record. As if Locations operates on a circular track, the exploration and improvisation that makes up the bulk of its runtime feels like a long arch (“spiraling around and into abstract slugs”) back to the free jazz at its bookends. It’s a welcome return, and the idea of “and” once again feels significant.

Here too is some bowed work, from Flaten presumably, a fantastic juxtaposition to the angularity of the fingerplay that makes up the bulk of his contributions, itself at the forefront of the record’s final pieces. Fluttering and moody stringwork is countered by Jansen’s almost strawlike improvisation, an aquatic friction which once again facilitates a wonderful give and take between the two very contrasting aesthetics of the artists.

Finally, we are given the most truly “free jazz” moment of Locations with its final piece, “Witches and Devils,” which is fittingly dedicated to Albert Ayler. A frenzied and panicked finish to an otherwise arguably relaxed record, it almost feels like a perplexing afterthought, but due to the experimental nature of the release, it doesn’t feel too off the cuff. Ultimately, “decisions” like these make Locations feel like more of a shared sketchbook than a singular collaboration, but the unpretentious and slightly hesitant quality of Jansen and Flaten’s playing makes it an engaging albeit chaotic listen. Locations feels apt, as these pieces most successfully exist as differing windows into an otherwise pervading central feeling – one of bloodshot eyes and empty coffee cups, final straws and last words, dead trees and dying worlds.

As the record fades out, I can’t help but think of the approaching winter storm that was mere hours away from pummeling the southern branch of Texas this collaboration was recorded in. A Texas norther is a terrifyingly sudden cold front which is characterized by strong northernly winds and often, a black sky that punishes otherwise unsuspecting southernly placed locales like a frozen hammer. As the music fades out, intention or not, composition or not, what remains here is this black sky – the long blanket of anxiety that courses through the experimentation – the cold, cold wind. For a record concerned with “location,” this representation of its surroundings is its greatest artistic achievement.