Perusing the Billboard archives from the past sixty or so years, as I am wont to do, I am fascinated by the many configurations of popular music that have graced the public consciousness over the 20th and 21st centuries. The farthest reaches of hook, of schlock, of schmaltz –Robbie Nevil belting “that’s just the way it goes” on “C’est La Vie,” Shalamar‘s punchy synthesizer wiggles drenching “Dancing in the Streets,” The Dells‘ meticulously arranged harmonies on “Stay in My Corner…” All that brings us to this point in history, where the folks behind Middle James Co. and now Cardinal Records bring us their inaugural release, a split between Howard Stelzer (Intransitive Recordings) and David Payne (Fossils) entitledSwelter (CARD1). Here, both artists participate in a ritualistic maneuver best described as junk music. Melody, or even tone, is absent – instead the listener is treated to the sounds of objects being manipulated and pushed and shoved around, to shapeless field recordings that serve, more or less, as texture. It’s “junk” because it sounds like it’s made of junk, of bits and pieces from here and there, scattered by free association. Therein lies the appeal: there is no overt evidence of design or premeditation; these sounds exist because they do, because Stelzer or Payne happened to flip this switch, or turn that tape deck on. As a result, the fact that this has been pressed onto glorious black vinyl and thoughtfully sleeved is gloriously insensible. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of the folks at the pressing plant? But alas, taking the record at face value, one discovers how something – not music, nor noise per se (although that’s what it most resembles) – emerges from the disorganized dissonance. Its appeal is largely ideological, the sonic product having become a ritual more than anything else. Fossils, Stelzer, and many like them have been putting these sorts of sounds out for ages (Payne’s still-running micro-edition label, Middle James Co., has over 400 releases to its credit) – but this record sees the concept neatly crystallized: junk.
But let’s backtrack. I met Fossils on a sparsely-attended Sunday night show, set in one of Toronto’s dingy, dim punk venues. In the far corner, near the entrance, a middle-aged Chinese businessman sat talking to a reticent, shrugging girl half his age. The rest of the crowd split between punks and nerds, the boundaries blurred. Fossils’ set involved the haphazard manipulation of various piles of junk slathered across two tables – knobs, cords, tape decks, an electric guitar. At one point, one of the opening acts insolently walked on stage and started twiddling with his laptop, prompting Payne to abruptly cut the sound and brusquely order him offstage. He and his goofy fedora scampered into the audience. At another point, near the set’s conclusion, a tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was played full-blast, then warped and buried amid noise etc. – this coming mere days after I saw Pet Sematary, where the very same song plays as a toddler is plowed by an eighteen-wheeler. It was a surreal evening, topped off with a brief chat and a pile of records coming my way for review.
Curiously, in my discussions with Farr and Payne I’ve learned that they don’t particularly adore the “junk” tag. As Payne explains: “['Junk' implies] the material isn’t worthy, being tossed off without attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of work goes into the preparation of each and every release, even if it is merely documentation of a happening. Our aesthetic focuses on improvisation, embracing accident and mistake, with attempts to create previously ualphnheard atmospheres.” This is a fair point, but it isn’t totally at odds with my view of things – in embracing accident and mistake, Fossils and their compatriots are working within an aesthetic that can be described as ‘junk,’ accepting that this doesn’t mean their work amounts to junk. Semantics, I assure you, will lead us all to early graves.
So anyway, there was the Stelzer / Payne split, Cardinal’s inaugural release. More recently, the label teamed up Fossils and Winters in Osaka for another slick LP curiously dubbed Celestial Hieroglyphics (CARD4). Winters in Osaka’s side is much more coherently musical – they play sepulchral doom metal. Track one lets a plodding, metronomic beat lead the way amidst tormented guitars and spectral howls, but it’s the slower paced last two that really hit the mark, gradually eschewing a clear rhythm before circling off into a vortex of grisly sub-bass. Fossils’ side is in stark contrast to its discmate’s, with more of the aforementioned ‘junk music’ – but here the odd bit of tone is allowed entry, be they dial tones or the distressed calls of a guitar being abused. A recycled sax solo from satellite member Robbie Michalchuk is also buried within. As something of a practical joke at the listener’s expense, there’s a locked groove not too far into the side that necessitates a meander to the turntable. Valuable seconds of my life, wasted! Overall, however, the duo seem somewhat more subdued here, their typically diffuse focus honed in on a subset of shifty sounds and burbling noise.
Domestic Disturbances (CARD3), the combined work of Toronto trash/guitar wizard Brian Ruryk and Fossils, brings more mid-record locked grooves (my fave!) and a whole lot of chaos. This record is even more eventful than the previous two, and that’s probably because Ruryk is the welterweight king of junk – his bedlam, which on side A is played over Fossils noise, bursts at the seams with the sounds of things being flailed and falling apart, and with barely-distinguishable guitar anguish (I don’t know how he torments the sounds he does out of his guitar, but I like it). Side B is devoted to four “constructions” by Fossils, made by recycling Ruryk’s messy sounds and restructuring them into equally messy new tracks. Can I tell that they’re reconstructions rather than original tracks? Only insofar as there is a more tapey feel to the proceedings – loops, tape distortion, etc. – yet the same ideology of nonsense and unpredictability governs this side, as well. Ultimately, Domestic Disturbances is the noisiest of the three Cardinal LPs, and also the most fulfilling. Ruryk, Payne, and Farr’s combined visions align precisely on this turbulent record, leading to a coherent message and anarchic whole. Only 100 copies out there, so act fast!
This brings us to the latest Cardinal release, catalogue number CARD5, which is an abrupt departure from the releases that precede it. Here’s the thing about Kevin Drumm‘s Electronic Harassment. It’s designed to provoke a reaction. Look no further than the title. It is relentless, aversive, and aggravating. When I play this, my roommates come in and argue tooth and nail that what I’m listening to is not music, that it has no point, and that it simply shouldn’t exist. I don’t blame them. If this didn’t have the authority of Kevin Drumm behind it, I wonder if there would be anybody around to love it. On side A, a piercing tone and thin feedback fuzz occupy the entirety of the composition, which evolves subtly over its course. It lives up to its title, in the sense that it sounds like it was designed to keep youths from loitering in grocery stores. Something fascinating happens when you listen to it for long enough at high enough volume – to a greater extent than many releases, it provokes an intense emotional anger, specifically annoyance. A necessity for those early mornings getting dressed for a long day at work – especially on a sultry summer day without A.C.! But seriously, there is something fascinating and impressive about music that can provoke the type of intense reaction that this tape does. In a world of tapes where drone is largely designed to “chill out” to and noise has become so homogeneous as to largely lose its sense of catharsis and ultimate release, a tape like Drumm’s stands out. I don’t know if I like it, but there is certainly something to it. By contrast, Side B is less predictable, abruptly shifting from block of sound to the next, resulting in these seemingly random sonic vignettes, but the high frequency schtick is a recurrent motif. Since the high-frequency chirps grow more frustrating the longer they are held, this strikes me as the more charitable side.
The Cardcrew also had the chongas to throw in a couple ultra-micro-editions from their Middle James Co. imprint, which has reached catalogue number 417 if we’re going to trust Discogs. Fossils’ Handsome Animal C60 (MJC407), limited to a scant 23 copies, is a good deep tape’s worth of variegated noisiness – it’s not particularly abrasive, but covers lots of ground. I dig the heavy, bassy tones the most, and fortunately they are in abundance. The Gold Standard CDR (MJC416) features tracks by Fossils, David Payne in solo, and Slut Mouth, which is basically Fossils’ David Payne and Daniel Farr playing ‘rock music’ – and by rock music, I mean shitty and disorganized guitar and drums. They can’t keep a beat, but hey, it’s concept art after all. Payne’s work is garbled-tape synthesizer goonery, and the Fossils tracks are lo-fi live recordings featuring Robbie Michalchuk on sax.