The History of Rock Music: 1995-2001

Drum'n'bass, trip-hop, glitch music
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(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi)

Transcendence


(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

Textural pop, 1995-99

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The legacy of slo-core was still being felt at the end of the decade on countless recordings devoted to fragile, slow ballads. For example, Fuck in San Francisco, notably their second album Baby Loves A Funny Bunny (1996), and Kingsbury Manx in North Carolina, with the gentle, bucolic odes of Kingsbury Manx (1999).

Texas' American Analog Set (1) advanced the oneiric sound pioneered by Galaxie 500, especially on their second album, From Our Living Room To Yours (1997). The extended single Late One Sunday (1997) wove together two hypnotic patterns, respectively a country guitar twang and a dub bass line, against a backdrop of intense drumming and floating voices.

New York's trio Calla (1) sculpted shadowy melodies that slowly crept out of their fragile envelopes on the stark and stately Calla (1999), a softly-hallucinated music reminiscent of Ry Cooder's soundtracks and Calexico's desert ambience.

Seattle's Red Stars Theory (2) turned Built To Spill's brainy trance upside down, emphasizing the trance, on their mostly-instrumental albums But Sleep Came Slowly (1997) and especially Life In A Bubble Can Be Beautiful (1999), which fused psychedelic, chamber and country music. Their songs were amoeba-like pseudo-jamming lattices that freely elaborated on a theme relying more on atmosphere and feeling than on structure or dynamics.

Built To Spill's second best pupils were Death Cab For Cutie (1), whose painstakingly detailed stories of alienation and defeat on Something About Airplanes (1999) employed the "textural" technique of the masters.

Boston's Helium (1), led by Mary Timony, bordered on feedback-pop on Dirt Of Luck (1995).

In England, Drugstore's Drugstore (1995) was a work of subtle seduction a` la Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star.

Mojave 3 (1), the new project by Slowdive's vocalists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, were modern bards that harked back to the golden age of country-rock and folk-rock (Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, early Donovan, Leonard Cohen) but added a metaphysical dimension. Ask Me Tomorrow (1996) and especially Excuses For Travellers (2000) were devoted to folk and country ballads that a lacerating pain had emptied of all energy and filled with a zen-like acceptance of the mystery of life.

Movietone (1), the project of Flying Saucer Attack's vocalist Rachel Brook and Third Eye Foundation's guitarist Matt Elliot played melancholy twilight ballads a` la Mazzy Star on Day And Night (1997).

Seattle's Microphones (1), the brainchild of Phil Elvrum (also the drummer for Old Time Relijun), found a different way to baroque psychedelic-pop. The sophisticated orchestration of his third album The Glow Pt 2 (2001), dedicated to fire, following two concepts dedicated to air and water, namely Don't Wake Me Up (1999) and It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water (2000), laid the foundations for the five lengthy suites of Mount Eerie (2003), audio fantasies that absorbed and metabolized apparently disconnected sounds to produce perfectly rational organisms.

Space-rock, 1995-99

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The wilder and looser strain of guitar-driven psychedelic music staged an impressive comeback.

Oregon's King Black Acid And The Womb Star Orchestra (1) crafted some of the most eclectic, encyclopedic and exhilarating space jams on Womb Star Sessions (1995).

Oregon's power-trio Davis Redford Triad, fronted by Faust's guitarist Steven-Wray Lobdell, were the main purveyors of the heavy psychedelic freak-out with the Fushitsusha-grade tornadoes of guitar distortion of The Mystical Path Of The Number Eighty Six (1997), as well as venturing into mellower dilated Eastern-tinged psychedelia with Ewige Blumenkraft (1998).

Pelt (2), in Virginia, further experimented on the format with Brown Cyclopedia (1995), a studio-savvy cross between Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, the Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat and Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. The free-form instrumentals of Burning Filament Rockets (1996) and Max Meadows (1997), that merged mind-bending psychedelic distortions and mind-opening world instrumentation, the three epic tracks of Techeod (1998), that obviously homaged minimalism and free-jazz, and the colossal title track from Empty Bell Ringing In The Sky (1999), led to the tour de force of Ayahuasca (2001), whose "ragas" defined a post-psychedelic and post-ambient music bridging John Fahey, Grateful Dead, Ravi Shankar and LaMonte Young. That set the standard for Pelt's massive cacophonous drone-based post-industrial hyper-psychedelic ragas, such as Pearls From the River, off Pearls From The River (2003), II, off Pelt (2005), Bestio Tergum Degero, off Skullfuck (2006), and Cast Out To Deep Waters, off Dauphin Elegies (2008).

Connecticut's Primordial Undermind (2) evolved from the garage-rock of Yet More Wonders Of The Invisible World (1995) and the space ballads of You And Me And The Continuum (1998) to the Hawkwind-style jams of Universe I've Got (1999) and the free-form space-rock of Beings Of Game P-U (2001), two albums which rank among the most "cosmic" and transcendental of the time.

Towering over every other space-rock band of the era, Philadelphia-based Bardo Pond (12) turned the acid-rock jam into a major art. Bufo Alvarius (1995) coined a new form of music built around supersonic drones. The average piece was a rainstorm of guitar distortions, strident turbulences and catastrophic drumming, halfway between MC5's heavy blues and Spacemen 3's shoegazing. It was the soundtrack of a cosmic trauma that still haunts the firmament. While no less brutal, Amanita (1996) revealed a spiritual element that harked back to both Popol Vuh's Hosianna Mantra and Pink Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets; but nothing could be less religious than the apocalyptic chaos of Lapsed (1997). These albums were as musical as Einstein's relativity.

The members of Bardo Pond (guitarists John and Michael Gibbons, drummer Joe Culver, bassist Clint Takeda) also shone on two magnificent collaborations with guitarist Roy Montgomery, both credited to Hash Jar Tempo (110), Well Oiled (1997) and Under Glass (1999). The former, a seven-movement instrumental jam, is a cosmic hymn of monumental proportions, the psychedelic equivalent of a symphonic mass. Guitars compete for and concur to a universal "om", first running against each other, battling for the highest form of enlightenment, and then joining together in unison. The music emerges from spacetime warps, propelled by seismic rhythms, only to delve into deeper and deeper abysses, hypnotized by an unspeakable force. The second album was even more experimental, less dependent on guitars, and explicitly inspired by classical music. It alternated between glacial, imposing structures and chaotic noise collages, reconciling Wagner and Amon Duul, Verdi and Hawkwind, Bach and Red Crayola.

Beyond shoegazing, 1995-2000

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My Bloody Valentine's droning psychedelic lullabies turned out to be one of the most influential inventions of the late 1980s. A decade later, they inspired an entire generation of younger musicians.

New York's Saturnine 60 (1) sculpted languid ballads that soared with epically distorted apotheoses on Wreck At Pillar Point (1995).

New Jersey's Lenola expanded the genre both forward, in terms of structure, and backwards, in term of melody, on The Last Ten Feet Of The Suicide Mile (1996). So did Georgia's Seely on Julie Only (1996).

New York's Bowery Electric (1), after the embryonic Bowery Electric (1995), a collection of lengthy guitar drones, enhanced their trance with dub reverbs, sampler, loops and drum-machines on Beat (1996).

Kansas' Shallow enhanced shoegazing with quasi-orchestral arrangements of flute, dulcimer, piano, organ and cello, besides loops and samples, on their second album High Flyin' Kid Stuff (1997).

New Jersey's Flowchart wed My Bloody Valentine's droning symphonies and Enya's magical fairy tales on Cumulus Mood Twang (1998).

Florida's Windsor For The Derby (1) sculpted the dreamy, wadded bliss of Calm Hades Float (1996) with guitar, Farfisa and drums.

Seattle's Kinski were heirs to the tradition of Bardo Pond's ambient space-rock. The jams of Spacelaunch for Frenchie (1999) and Be Gentle With the Warm Turtle (2001) valued repetition and texture but also unleashed brutal maelstroms of distortions, a compromise between British shoegazing and Japanese noise.

In Britain, Richard Walker's Amp (2) continued Flying Saucer Attack's mission with the chaotic ambience of Sirenes (1996) and the ethereal space ballads for female vocals (Karine Charff) and guitar maelstroms of Stenorette (1998), while at the same time indulging in the more abstract improvisations of Astral Moon Beam Projections (1997) and Perception (1997).

Droning psychedelia, 1995-2000

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The next (transcendent) step in the evolution of acid-rock and shoegazing music consisted in shifting the focus of the music from the melody to what had been the background noise.

The area around Detroit (that had a tradition stretching from the Stooges to Gravitar) boasted one of the most fertile scenes. Fuxa harked back to both German avant-rock of the 1970s and Spacemen 3's shoegazing nightmares on Very Well Organized (1996). The wild, improvised, cacophonous jams of Asha Vida's Nature's Clumsy Hand (1998) stretched as far as free-jazz and musique concrete. Medusa Cyclone (1), the new project by Viv Akauldren's keyboardist Keir McDonald, ran the gamut from synth-pop to cosmic music on their debut album, Medusa Cyclone (1996).

The hypnotic, transcendental form of acid-rock was also popular in Texas. Furry Things (1) crafted the feedback-driven trance of The Big Saturday Illusion (1995) at the intersection of prog-rock, ambient music and acid jams. Its "songs" were grotesque deconstructions of rock'n'roll that twitched under clouds of swirling drones. 7% Solution (1) gave more melodic and dynamic depth to the drone-driven ambient psychedelia of the shoegazers on All About Satellites And Spaceships (1996).

The Dallas scene was particularly vibrant. The Vas Deferens Organization (12), or VDO, founded by New Orleans-natives Matt Castille and Eric Lumbleau, highlighted the link between psychedelic culture and the century-old cultures of dadaism and futurism. They specialized in a form of narrative nonsense for electronics and percussions that relied on a vast sonic puzzle. The three mad suites of Transcontinental Conspiracy (1996), featuring Medicine's guitarist Brad Laner, fluctuated between the most childish compositions of Frank Zappa and the most daring pieces of the classical avantgarde. Saturation (1996) combined the Mahavishnu Orchestra's wild jazz-rock with Terry Riley's keyboards-driven minimalism, musique concrete with raga. Abandoning the reckless frenzy of those early works, the five compositions on Zyzzybaloubah (1997) flew with more aplomb, displaying a brainy, pretentious attitude where merry pranksters used to play.

The VDO tribe spawned countless projects. Matt Castille recorded a lengthy suite of psychedelic excesses on Muz (1998). Eric Lumbleau formed Sound (USA) (1) and recorded the audio montage of Drunk On Confusion (1999), worthy of Frank Zappa's most amusing and iconoclastic moments. Mazinga Phaser (1) assembled the unfocused collages of Cruising In The Neon Glories (1996) by juxtaposing chamber music, elegiac bebop, gothic dub, space soul, ethereal bossanova and discordant drum'n'bass. Scott Sutton vented his Jimi Hendrix fixation on Late Nite Songs (1996), as J. Bone Cro, and his Syd Barrett fixation on Owners Manual (1997), as Jaloppy. Further emancipating themselves from the stereotype, Ohm (1), a keyboards-bass-clarinet trio, composed ethnic and electronic music on O2 (1997).

The droning school found a fertile soil also in San Francisco, where Helios Creed and Subarachnoid Space had long advocated guitar mayhems.

Guitarists Steven Smith and Glenn Donaldson focused on free-form instrumental psychedelia with Mirza's mini-album Ursa Minor (1996). In addition, Steven Smith released several solo works of eerie instrumental pieces created via a process of gradual composition, from Gehenna Belvedere (1996) to Tableland (2000) to Lineaments (2002). Those dense and meticulous blends of ancient, modern, acoustic, electric, western and ethnic instruments reenacted Smith's private ghosts, the primordial spleen that was the undercurrent of his avantgarde projects (the abstract and cacophonous Thuja, the pan-ethnic Hala Strana). Donaldson is also half of the Skygreen Leopards who released collections of lazy and hazy psych-folk ditties such as She Rode On A Pink Gazelle & Other Dreams (2001), One Thousand Bird Ceremony (2004) and Life & Love In Sparrow's Meadow (2005).

The Double Leopards (1) orchestrated thick cosmic drones for a quartet featuring three guitarists (Chris Gray, Marcia Bassett, Mike Bernstein) and a keyboardist (Maya Miller) on the double-disc Halve Maen (2003), containing the 21-minute A Hemisphere in Your Hair. Full of suspense and drama, their sound bridged LaMonte Young, early Throbbing Gristle and Zen meditation. They achieved expressionistic intensity with the three lengthy noisescapes of A Hole Is True (2005) and with Out Of One, Through One, And To One (2005), a colossal improvisation with Samara Lubelski.

Dead Voices On Air (1), formed in Vancouver by former Zoviet France's collaborator Mark Spybey, sculpted droning ambient-industrial nightmares on New Words Machine (1995).

Ashtray Navigations, the brainchild of super-prolific English multi-instrumentalist Phil Todd, specialized in sloppy droning free-form acid-rock for guitar and synthesizer, for example on Four Raga Moods (1997) and Tristes Tropiques (2000), a style that peaked with the six jams of The Love that Whirrs (2005), featuring drummer Alex Neilson and guitarist Ben Reynolds.

Scotland's Beta Band devoted their first two EPs, Champion Versions (1997) and The Patty Patty Sound (1998), to intense sound sculpting and disco-oriented shoegazing.

Treated guitar drones and noises reached a new dimension with the work of Austrian-born Christian Fennesz (3), both in his harsh cacophonies, such as Hotel Paral.Lel (1997) and the nightmarish Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56'37" Minus Sixteen Degrees 51'08" (1999), and in his melodic glitch-pop mirages, such as Endless Summer (2001) and Venice (2004). The interaction between guitar and computer reached a psychological peak with Black Sea (2008) that sounded like the cold and gloomy meditation of a painter turned philosopher.

Australian guitarist Chris Smith piled up layers of guitar drones and drenched them in crackling background noise to sculpt the stately architectures of his second album Replacement (2000), reminiscent of both Roy Montgomery and Flying Saucer Attack.

Noise-folk, 1996-2000

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Six Organs of Admittance (2), the project of acoustic guitarist Ben Chasny, coined a psychedelic form of Sandy Bull's and John Fahey's western ragas with east-west meditations such as Sum of All Heaven, off Six Organs of Admittance (1998), and VIII, off For Octavio Paz (2003).

Largely improvised noise-folk-rock music with strong psychedelic overtones was offered in England by Volcano The Bear (1) on Five Hundred Boy Piano (2001), notably the three-movement suite The Tallest People In The World, The Idea Of Wood (2005) and especially the double-CD Classic Erasmus Fusion (2006), that ran the gamut from naive lullabies to convoluted fantasias.

Japanese acidcore, 1996-2000

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In Japan, Mainliner (11), formed by High Rise's bassist Asahito Nanjo with Acid Mothers Temple's guitarist Makoto Kawabata, unleashed two of the most brutal works of the era, Mellow Out (1996) and Sonic (1997), nuclear tornados of cacophonous Feedtime-like chaos and Chrome-like martian beats. The former's wall of noise signaled the advent of a new kind of "rock" music, one that relied on unrelenting impetus (just like hardcore) while retaining the mind-expanding qualities of acid-rock.

The most prolific of this prolific Japanese school of space-rockers was, by far, Makoto Kawabata, the (demented) brain and the (logorrheic) guitar behind Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. (16). Synthesizer-heavy percussive jams in the vein of freaks such as Magma and Gong filled their early album Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso Ufo (1997); Blue Velvet Blues, off Pataphysical Freak Out Mu (1999), was an astral hymn a` la Grateful Dead; Acid Heart Mother, off Troubadours From Another Heavenly World (2000), was a torpid guitar lullaby stretched out to become a self-guided journey into the psyche of the guitarist; and the 40-minute piece of La Novia (2000) stood as a synthesis of both psychedelic styles, basically a multi-faceted essay on hypnosis in music. Subsequent freakouts became ever more chaotic and orgiastic, notably Psycho Buddha, off New Geocentric World (2001), Theme of Hot Rattlesnakes, off the Mothers of Invasion’s Hot Rattlesnakes (2002), The Seven Stigmata From Pussycat Nebula, off the quadruple The Penultimate Galactic Bordello Also The World You Made (2004), They're Coming From The Cosmic Inferno, off Just Another Band From The Cosmic Inferno (2005), Eternal Incantation Of Perpetual Nightmare, off Recurring Dream & Apocalypse Of Darkness (2008), and Cosmic Soul Death Disco off Glorify Astrological Martyrdom (2008),. Their most powerful and exhilarating album was Electric Heavyland (2002), a spasm of full-tilt noise, agonizing blues music that is swallowed by its own ugliest and dirtiest elements. The transcendental element, instead, shines in the hour-long live version of Pink Lady Lemonade featured on Do Whatever You Want (2002), in 41st Century Splendid Man, an electronic composition bordering on ambient and cosmic music on the mini-album 41st Century Splendid Man (2002), and  in the multi-layered droning cosmic music of Son, off Kawabata's solo Inui 1 (2000), the first installment of a series scored for a plethora of ethnic instruments. This mystical alter-ego was also influenced by the iterative techniques of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, best absorbed in Supernatural Infinite Space, off Absolutely Freak Out (2001), and in European Sun, off A Thousand Shades of Grey (2003), a minimalist concerto for sitar, violin, bamboo flute, voice and electronics; and by Gong's sardonic prog-rock frenzy, that permeates the 51-minute OM Riff from The Cosmic Inferno, off Iao Chant From The Cosmic Inferno (2005). The satanic threnodies of Univers Zen Ou De Zero A Zero (2002) perhaps found the middle path between the two extremes.  The stately form that emerged, best represented by Dark Star Blues, off Does The Cosmic Shepherd Dream Of Electric Tapirs? (2004), blended three of the main influences: the Jefferson Airplane (with Cotton Casino impersonating Grace Slick), Amon Duul II's Phallus Dei and the Grateful Dead's Dark Star. The ethereal soprano Cotton Casino was to Kawabata in AMT what Gilli Smyth was to Daevid Allen in Gong. This natural evolution towards a synthesis of styles led to Electric Psilocybin Flashback, off Crystal Rainbow Pyramid Under The Stars (2007), and especially the majestic Nam Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo (2007), colossal multi-faceted nightmares designed around a catchy rhythm. The bluesy, tortured, jarring and haunting Demons From Nipples, off Demons From Nipples (2005) and the interaction between Kawabata’s dissonant guitar and Afrirampo's acrobatic vocalist Pikachu in Master Of The Cosmic Inferno, off Journey Into The Cosmic Inferno (2008), heralded yet another reorientation of the project. Throughout his gargantuan odyssey Kawabata displayed an omnivorous knowledge of the history of underground music (including countless puns in the titles of his compositions), so much as that his entire oeuvre could be seen as one life-long tribute to the genre.

Musica Transonic (1), a supergroup with Acid Mother Temple's guitarist Makoto Kawabata and Ruin's drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, specialized in a less barbaric fury and even jazzy stylings on albums such as Introducing (1995), A Pilgrim's Repose (1996) and Orthodox Jazz (1997).

Christine 23 Onna (the duo of Masonna's Maso Yamazaki and Fusao Toda of Angel In Heavy Syrup) specialized in wild, distorted, chaotic retro-analog electronic sounds on Shiny Crystal Planet (2000) and Acid Eater (2002).


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