Slotek “7” (1997, Wordsound Recordings)

 

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During the mid 1990s there was an emergence of a somewhat esoteric, experimental electronic sub-genre coined “illbient”. This was a genre that usually attempted to express the dark, nocturnal vibes of inner-city living and industrial complex aesthetics through a mixture of dub reggae production, downtempo/trip-hop leanings of the current time period, dark ambient drones, and a healthy dose of samples. This was electronic music with no intention of being club-friendly or possessing any moderate “rave” appeal. And yet it still had quite an accessibility factor to it, despite it’s gritty, bleak, eerie atmospheres that were conjured. It really was never that hostile, despite the aesthetic of it all. If anything, it was almost a little inviting, especially to those listeners who could relate to the dark, urban, sometimes dystopian vibe of it all (think Blade Runner/Eraserhead/Soylent Green/Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime/even old film noir), due to much of the illbient scene’s output having a very languid, oddly soothing, yet surreal affect on the listener.

One of the illbient albums that best represents this description is the album by the Brooklyn, New York (where much of the illbient scene stemmed from) producer Slotek, who has had quite a number of different aliases and projects he worked under. What is special about is how consistent the album is: it retains it’s slow, stoned, nocturnal world throughout it’s entire runtime without ever getting too experimental and wild. Sure, on first listen it may seem a little simple and repetitive, maybe even a little gimmicky, but on closer listens it makes it apparent that it’s not trying to prove anything, but merely suggest mysterious, menacing, yet subjective themes through it’s tasteful use of B-movie samples, minimal synth lines, reverbed, pitched-down drum machines, and heavy, foreboding bass lines. The inside booklet of the CD (it was never released on vinyl format) has strong implications to some sort of pseudo-occult concept, which makes sense since much of the album conjures vague images of some sort of witches brew/Halloween-like soundscape, in addition to the overall smokey, ironically warm/sleepy, and almost analogue sounding recording production. And yet Slotek still stays true to the whole concrete jungle film-noir aesthetic, as the music has an undeniable “loner in a big city” implication, which is made all the more apparent through excellent uses of horn samples, particularly the muted trumpet and fragmented clarinet riffs hovering in and out the mix on a few tracks.

Listen here:

https://wordsoundrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/slotek-7

 

 

Melvins “Gluey Porch Treatments”(1987)

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Before Grunge, before Nirvana, before the 1990s, there were The Melvins. It’s such a shame that generations of Nirvana fanboys/fangirls have come and gone without even ever hearing of the Melvins. They are often called the godfathers of grunge, even though their music absolutely transcends that genre, and the Melvins themselves aren’t too fond of being labeled as grunge. The Melvins have never been interested in conforming to a certain scene or genre; they have never felt obligated to follow any rules or musical guidelines in their music. This is still true to this day, as the two core members of the Melvins [founder Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne (lead vocals, guitar, etc.) and Dale Crover (drums, vocals, etc.)] have been recording together for over 30 years now, and have never once broken up their project as the Melvins. Long-time fans sometimes call Buzz and Dale the hardest working rockers in the music business, and that is probably true.

Little do most people know is that Buzz Osborne grew up with Kurt Cobain in Aberdeen, Washington, and sort of mentored him like an older brother. Buzz was a few years older than Kurt, but they both shared similar senses of humor and passion for music. Buzz basically introduced Kurt to the world of underground punk/rock/experimental scene at the time, and taught Kurt some guitar. Apparently some of Kurt’s all-time favorite records and artists came from this underground scene, what would eventually be called “indie”, although that term has become almost obsoletely vague when considering the vast array of different genres and sub-genres of musicians that act “independently”. Buzz and Dale actually introduced Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to Dave Grohl before the recording of Nevermind. And yet, most people today, even the ones who think they are all hip in the music scene, are still oblivious to the contributions and innovations of the Melvins.

But back to Gluey Porch Treatments. This album was the Melvins’ first full-length LP, released on an obscure record label (Alchemy) back in 1987. One listen gives the impression that Nirvana’s Bleach album was directly inspired by Gluey and almost amateurishly mimics it in certain sections. Well then, what does Gluey Porch Treatments sound like? Pure sludge. After all, the Melvins are also considered the godfathers of other sub-genres and scenes like sludge metal (the fusion of playing downtuned doom metal/Black Sabbathy sounding songs with the attitude and aesthetic of hardcore punk), drone metal, and stoner rock. The Melvins still have their own unique sound though, as it is vastly experimental and dynamic, and never once gives in to certain limitations, even though their signature sound is often very slow, suffocatingly heavy dirge rock, an ugly mutant child raised on equal parts punk and metal, and always darkly humorous and surreal. It is important to recognize that Gluey Porch Treatments showcases the Melvins in an early stage, without much of their later mad scientist experiments, and it works all the better for it. There are 17 tracks of which all sound relentlessly bleak and cryptic, veering constantly between short, angular punk outburst under a minute, and longer, slow-motion tar-pit jams (equally ominous and affecting). This is sludge metal that really does sound “sludgy”, with huge walls of Buzzo’s multi-tracked guitar distorted in a way that sounds truly filth-ridden, in addition to the fact that many of the songs utilize early uses of the classic Drop-D tuning, further augmenting the thick aural assault.

Many of the songs throughout the Melvins’ debut album are very complex, with sudden irregular tempo changes quite reminiscent of the later “math rock” sub-genre and disorienting guitar riffs that have more in common with the surreal, dissonant blues-rock of late 1960s’ Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band and the guitar work of 80s underground legends Greg Ginn and Paul Leary than with Tony Iommi’s work in early 70s’ Black Sabbath. The Melvins weren’t the first post-punk group to experiment with that “slower is heavier” style, but they certainly refined and configured it into an intimidating monster that was all their own. Early 80s groups like Flipper, Swans, and Black Flag had also experimented with sludgy, downtrodden dirge-punk, and all had a big influence on the Melvins’ sound. But on Gluey Porch Treatments this peculiar sound is pushed down a wholly different shit-hole, and comes out much more mischievous (in an eerie, Halloween-like way), unpredictable, humorous, colorfully surreal, and mysteriously esoteric.

(On a side note, the bass player on this album was Matt Lukin, who would later found the grunge band Mudhoney. Lukin was one of the many bass players that have come and gone throughout the Melvins’ career.

 

Chrome- “Half Machine Lip Moves” (1979)

7286-Chrome-HalfAn album that is profoundly ahead of its time, Chrome’s “Half Machine Lip Moves” is a timeless underground classic from 1979 that has aged wonderfully. Chrome was formed in San Francisco in the mid-late 1970s by Damon Edge (R.I.P.) as a wild avant-punk/psychedelic rock outfit. But it wasn’t until their second album, 1977’s “Alien Soundtracks” that the band really became something wholly unique. This album featured the essential addition of a new band member, guitarist/vocalist Helios Creed, whose remarkable chemistry with Damon Edge resulted in some of their very best work together on “Alien Soundtracks”, which featured demented, lo-fi sound collages that were structured around wild post-Stooges/Hendrix guitar riffs, disorienting tape effects and samples, distorted bass, in-the-red drums, and pulsating keyboards. The music was utterly deranged, sounding like an acid trip imploding upon itself (Oh yeah, and apparently “Alien Soundtracks” was initially meant to be the soundtrack to some obscure burlesque show/live porno).

As if things couldn’t get even crazier, the followup album “Half Machine Lip Moves” only expanded on the previous album’s material and sonic direction. Creed and Edge were now the sole two members of the band, and were able to have full creative control. The music still retained a heavy sci-fi/dystopian aesthetic, which has permanently become their trademark, but “Half Machine Lip Moves” was arguably even more visionary, and is known as being one of the first “industrial rock” albums, or proto-industrial for that matter. Damon Edge employed multiple scrap metal pieces as percussion along with his crude drum kit, and Creed’s vocals were distorted, flanged, and pitched-shifted beyond recognition. Both these innovations would continue to be hugely influential on the so-called industrial genre to come.

“Half Machine Lip Moves” boasts 36 minutes of relentless insanity, which later had a huge influence on Texas acid punks The Butthole Surfers. But whereas the Surfers had a very clear live band sound (if you could call it that), Helios Creed and Damon Edge crafted their songs in a very that most of the album would be impossible to replicate live. That is, the compositions are so dense with studio manipulation, fragmented acid rock solos, tape loops, overdubbed samples; It is obvious Creed and Edge were aware that this was mainly a studio-oriented project. But all the better for it indeed, as “Half Machine” is one of the most psychedelic, grotesque, and esoteric albums ever made, as multiple listens reward the listener with such layered sounds so nuanced and effectively placed throughout the so-called “songs”. Many of the compositions feature some sort of “normal” song structure, complete with a steady groove, but then abruptly cut off and mutate into some other, often more disturbing, entity. This may happen to be some sort of synth-laden sound collage, burnt-out funk groove, or circular industrial rhythm accompanying disembodied voices belonging either to Creed, Edge, or sample source, but it is often to hard to tell what sounds are coming from machine or organically played with live instruments. But that’s the point, and may as well be the reason for the album’s title: the music contained wherein is a bio-mechanical frankenstein mutant, a very ugly, hostile one, not unlike some monstrosity out of a David Cronenberg film.

DJ Screw- “All Screwed Up” (1995)

DJ Screw- “All Screwed Up” (1995)

By now any fan of hip hop can recognize the common remixing technique known as “chopped and screwed”, but few have ever actually listened to the works of the late DJ Screw, who died extremely young at the age of 29. A cult sensation in his hometown of Houston, Texas, Screw undoubtedly pioneered the chopped and screwed remixing style, hence the genre’s name stemming from Screw himself. But one listen to Screw’s prolific, yet overlooked, career during the 1990s, and one will notice that DJ Screw’s approach to remixing is radically different from the chopped and screwed attempts made today by modern disc jockeys. Not only this, but Screw’s skills at remixing were more along the lines of a visionary at work, crafting his own magic on his own time, untethered from any trend in the hip hop scene (or the entire music scene at the time, arguably). Chopping and Screwing involves slowing down the tempo of a track, and then “chopping” up segments and replanting them in ways that reenforce a certain fragmented quality. Many argue that the chopped and screwed technique is ridiculous, being very basic and adolescent, but in the hands of DJ Screw, it was made into an undeniably powerful entity.

What makes Dj Screw’s work during his short time on this earth so special is the sheer otherworldy atmosphere he radically created through reinventing the tracks he selected (Many of the songs Screw “screwed with” were ones by his friends, the members of the so- called Screwed-Up Click). These songs were enhanced through a meticulous integration of new, eerie samples, mixed in a heady, hallucinatory fashion. Screw was a big fan of the purple drank, the fusion of codeine with grape soda and sometimes other sodas like sprite, and he obviously attempted to recreate his cough syrup trips through his music, which makes sense proven that his mixes were often thick, soupy messes of sound, ones that conjured up late nights driving to fast food chains illuminated by neon lights, accompanied by the malevolent spirits of thugs gone down the wrong path. Beats were manipulated to produce a harder-hitting sound, often bearing a physical weight that evoked something quite astray from “normal” hip hop, and closer towards the realm of some tripped out doom metal. The bass always plays a big part in Screw’s work, as it’s tone is pitched down, allowing lower frequencies to resonate through the murky soundscapes. Any music aficionado should recognize the similarities of Screw’s methods to the dub reggae of the 1970s and 80s, a significant jamaican reggae sub-genre utilized by the great producers Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Keith Hudson, and Herman Chin Loy.

“All Screwed Up” is one of Screw’s most popular and celebrated albums/mixes, and for good reason. But it is also undoubtedly one of his darkest, often crossing over into feverish nightmare territory, if his music wasn’t already surreal enough. Almost every track features Dirty South rappers spitting out remorseful, depressive, and paranoid lyrics. But these lyrics drip down even deeper in the hands of Screw, and the results give the music a profoundly vulnerable side to the world of thugs and hip hop. “After I Die” is arguably the album’s centerpiece, as it’s 9 minute runtime boasts an unrelentingly pulsating atmosphere that is absolutely chilling, with distant trumpet riffs and a woozy, serpentine bass line accompanying the featured rapper’s existentially mournful reflections on his destructive lifestyle. Every track on this album is extremely vivid, capturing the film noir world that is all too real for thugs, lowlifes, and hustlers. Dj Screw’s vision is one only lit by neon lights, ones that entrap the thugs illuminated by them, warping their minds and disorienting their sense of direction in life. “All Screwed Up”, like most of Screw’s output,  ultimately transcends hip-hop, and exists in a multi-dimensional river of cough syrup teeming with as much psychedelia, electronic music, dub reggae, industrial, funk, and soul as it does hip-hop.