Nuno Canavarro – Plux Quba: Música Para 70 Serpentes, 1988

One of the hardest and best parts about writing this blog has been running up against records that feel impossible to write about, avoiding them for months or even years, and then eventually writing about them anyway. This is exactly that kind of record, and fittingly I’ve been putting it off since day one: its influence is too far reaching to properly recount, it’s too elegant and precise to accurately describe, and I feel too gooey about it, too pierced, to possibly set my feelings aside and attempt objectivity. I think that’s all ok, though, because Plux Quba is too perfect not to share.

The story starts with a familiar format that, coupled with incredibly prescient music, feels like the foregrounding for a hoax. In 1991, Christoph Heemann brought a copy of 1988’s Plux Quba to (from what I gather was) an informal listening session with Jim O’Rourke, Jan St. Werner, C-Schulz, Frank Dommert, and George Odjik in Köln, Germany. It was music without context, laboriously made with just an Ensoniq Mirage, a Fostex 8-track tape recorder, and an early 8-bit sampler loaded with pre-recorded, highly modified samples of things like television, radio voices, and the melodica. The story goes that everyone present was floored by it; O’Rourke so much so that when he launched Moikai, his label dedicated to minimal and electronic music, Plux Quba was his first (re)release, remixed and remastered by Portuguese guitarist and composer Rafael Toral. Since then it’s been reissued a few times, most recently by Japanese label Inpartmaint Inc, and while it has had incredible bearing on two decades of experimental electronic music, it seems that Plux Quba hasn’t yet received the widespread acclaim it’s due.

Several reviewers have said that Plux Quba takes inspiration from Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing. I don’t know if that’s directly true, but I like to think of this record as hermetic, like the music of Charanjit Singh or Woo, bearing the kind of brilliance that often does write its own spontaneous language. It’s much too deliberate to be called an accident–Canavarro was already a well-seasoned musician by this time. And yet despite being recorded at home on very dated, simple equipment, it seems to exist outside of time. Having witnessed the subsequent deluge of glitch music and its offspring, this still sounds truly alien–more exploratory, a kind of sonic alchemy. It’s more abstract than what I typically post, so if you typically gravitate towards things that are more lyrical or poppy, I would absolutely encourage you to start here, preferably in headphones–though, for what it’s worth, Canavarro himself instructs on the back sleeve that this record must be heard “1. through speakers that are as far apart from one another as possible, and 2. starting from A-5, at a low volume (‘Wask’ and side 2).”

It explores similarly incandescent territory as Canavarro’s remarkable split with Carlos Maria Trindade, often employing the same textural palette and manipulations of vocal samples–slicing them up, stacking them precariously, drawing them out into ghost whispers, and running them backwards. But with a longer playtime and no collaborators, Canavarro is able to more fully world-build, perhaps to even create something that feels more circular and complete. Comprised of 15 vignettes, mostly between one and two minutes long, not all of this record is unabashedly beautiful. Parts are deliberately jagged (“Alsee”), faltering (“Untitled 1”), or shrill (“O Fundo Escuro De Alsee”), but it’s precisely their inclusion that allow the record to reach sublime, sparkling heights. The stumbling, out-of-tune baroque of “Crimine” comes to mind–even here, after two and a half minutes of uncertainty, the song abruptly shifts to a perfect, crystalline music box lullaby. The record most perfectly exemplifies its own restrained breed of heartbreaking on the final track, Untitled 8. Slowly building, gently pulsing synthetic marimba, a veil of processed, indistinct whispers, a faraway oboe, and a ship’s bell that, when fully faded out, leave you perfectly positioned to restart the record.

If you’re interested in learning more about the recording process: in my Googling I found out that Fond/Sound has lovingly translated a rare interview that Canavarro gave to Fernando Magalhães into English. You can read it here.

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Muslimgauze – Zul’m, 1992

Hard to know where to start. Muslimgauze was the moniker of UK musician Bryn Jones, who released over 90 albums in his short life (he died suddenly at 37 from a rare blood infection). As more of his recordings are still being unearthed posthumously, his discography is currently approaching 200 releases. The project originated with Jones’s support for Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its nexus, but eventually expanded to encompass his sympathy for other conflict-ridden Muslim countries, and his belief that Western interests in natural resources and political gain were at the root of many of these conflicts. He lived with his parents until his death, but was effectively living in his studio most of the time, often churning out an album a week for months on end. He was so obsessive about his music-making (and showed no regard for how little interest it generated during his lifetime) that he often said he didn’t have time to listen to anyone else’s music–yet he pulled from so many genres in such a prescient way that he must have been some kind of lightning rod for musical synthesis. His work incorporates elements of dub, techno, drum and bass, industrial, ambient, and traditional percussion borrowed from dozens of ethnicities. Most (and I say most lightly, as I’ve barely scratched the surface) of his music is built around that percussion–drum kits, drum machines, breakbeats, ethnic hand percussion, pots and pans–and tape loops, which he preferred over computers and samplers despite their much more laborious process.

Zul’m is on the more accessible side of what I’ve heard of Muslimgauze, and it neatly encapsulates much of Jones’s aesthetic. It moves slowly and decisively, building up to frothy climaxes that occasionally feel joyful in spite of the oppressive, clanking weight of the whole thing. Hypnotic stretches of percussion, looping, and vocal samples (in both Hindi and Arabic on this release). I think this was around the time that Jones was beginning to use more spaced out, expansive production, and you can hear that dubby quality working to terrific effect. Zul’m is dedicated to “the unknown Palestinians buried in mass graves in Al-Riqqa cemetary, Kuwait city.” Today we might also dedicate it today to the civilians of Aleppo, both the living and the dead.

Severed Heads – City Slab Horror, 1985

We try to focus on records that appeal to a wide range of people and are super listenable, on-repeat records. This is an exception. Severed Heads was (for the most part) the brainchild of Tom Ellard, and their early recordings are experiments in tape looping, distorted synth, and proto-techno drum machine backbones. The results are way ahead of their time, a body of work that belongs in the same sentence as Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and the Art of Noise. In addition to being musical pioneers, Severed Heads boasts a collection of bitingly clever song titles (“Hello Donald, Merry Xmas,” “Mambo Fist Miasma,” “Larry I’m Just An Average Girl,” “Now, An Explosive New Movie,” etc.) and a daunting collection of psychotic video work, largely thanks to Stephen Jones, who developed the analog video synthesizers that he used to make music videos and manipulate live footage of Severed Heads performances. (Hard to know where to start with these, but here are a few favorites.)
City Slab Horror features plenty of tape looping, but Ellard’s growing taste for pop structures and more cohesive rhythms make the record more song-centric and less noisy, though dissonance and gritty textures still run rampant. Standouts are “Ayoompteyempt” and the luminous classic “We Have Come to Bless the House,” though the record as a whole functions as a tunneling trip through a cynical morbid fascination. Buried in frenzy are moments of sublime joy (“Guests”), though I can confidently say that I’m happy to be a tourist and not a permanent resident in the deranged world of Severed Heads.
Note: This version includes additional tracks from a 1989 reprint on Canadian label Nettwerk, which are advertised as “tracks from Blubberknife,” though in actuality only “Umbrella” is taken from Blubberknife, with the rest pulled from the 1985 Goodbye Tonsils 12″ and the 1985 double LP, Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live In The Past. I chose to share this version rather than the original release because it includes the monstrous “Acme Instant Dehydrated Boulder Kit.”