Album Review: Walter Gross – The Fra Mauro Highlands

by Dustin

FMH

8.5/10

On January 31st, 1971 NASA would launch the eighth manned mission to the moon, Apollo 14. The three person crew kicked off the 9 day mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39, before travelling to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the near side of the lunar surface. This would serve as the last of NASA’s simplistic (relatively speaking) H-Type missions to the moon, as they upgraded to the longer J-Type with Apollo 15. While this particular Apollo mission was relatively understated, its legacy lives on as a success during the booming age of space exploration. An era that had a particular vibe of wonder, and captured the imagination of individuals even outside the realm of science.

One may now be asking how this is relevant to music, and Walter Gross is the answer to that question. Though he may not have been an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission (or even much of a space enthusiast, for that matter), his love of ambient concentrative music lead him to an interesting place of inspiration: the Voyager recordings. Finding himself endeared to the organic beauty of these pieces, he began work on his own out of this world experimentation. Quickly reaching full realization with a 23 minute (50 counting the Stray Signals Cassette Mix) long tape of atmospheric allure, The Fra Mauro Highlands. An album which would suitably see release on the 47th anniversary of Apollo 14.

Though it bares his name, The Fra Mauro Highlands was not the type of project one has come to expect from Walter Gross. It abandoned a lot of the crunchier, abrasive noise elements he’s become known for in the past, opting to try something a little more ambient instead. Once expectations were subverted however, this was a wonderful listening experience. It hit the flavor of desolate space music perfectly, and managed to feel cold while also inspiring a sense of adventure. There was a particular hint of retro-futurism to the tape, to the same vein as a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was due primarily to brilliant sound contrast constructed by Walter Gross. The entirety of The Fra Mauro Highlands had an underlying subtle ambiance of whooshing and swirling sounds that were distinctly galactic and harrowing. Atop of this there were moments of gorgeously vintage sounding synthetic instrumentation, used sparsely enough to maintain a sense of mechanical exploration through an all encompassing emptiness. It didn’t mess around with precisely divide tracks. Rather, this album was one continuous piece of music that built upon itself, evolving in a natural and off-the-cuff manner.

With all that in mind, there were aspects of The Fra Mauro Highlands carrying Walter’s signature touch. It was an immensely unsettling selection of work, with the emptiness and overall tone having created a strong sense of urgency and apprehensiveness of the unknown. With artistic anxiety being such a mainstay in his music, this familiarity was oddly comforting. It provided reassurance that this is exactly how the project was supposed to make one feel, and not an emotion to be avoided. The “Stray Signals Cassette Mix” which followed the conclusion of The Fra Mauro Highlands rewound things back a little further stylistically, while having maintained the same overall vibe. It wasn’t the star of the show by any means, but it was very good and really provided a feeling of returning home to the established fan of Walter Gross. A return after a fantastic journey.

Much like the Apollo 14 mission itself, The Fra Mauro Highlands will likely go down as one of Walter Gross’ most under-the-radar releases. While it was absolutely excellent, it appealed to a listener base even more niche than his signature barrage of noise. Which is unfortunate, because it was a stunningly beautiful, and somewhat anxious, ambient album. It wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and the ambition was undeniable. Do-it-Yourself music is about pushing limits, catching waves of inspiration, and trying things outside of the box just to see what will happen. Walter Gross did all of these things with The Fra Mauro Highlands. It embodied the spirit of the scene entirely, and should find itself respected as such.

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EP Review: Youth:Kill – A Hunter’s Moon

by Dustin

youthkill

8.25/10

It’s that time again – another record has descended upon the world from the hellish mind of Walter Gross. We’ve reviewed a couple of Walter Gross albums in the past; this particular one is, however, slightly different. Instead of a solo record this is a Youth:Kill release, the joint project between Gross and emcee K-the-I??? (known for years of affiliation with Fake Four). It can be a mixed bag of results when a noise producer teams up with a vocalist, but Walter Gross and K-the-I??? are long time fixtures in their respective facets of music. They’ve also got a history working together so if you’ve not heard it already, A Hunter’s Moon should be perking your ears up.

To find a comparison of sound that most may be familiar with, A Hunter’s Moon is reminiscent of a more raw version of earlier clipping. work. Its harsh instrumental tones are as abrasive as a Brillo pad, forcing the lyrics to pick their pockets of space carefully when attempting to navigate the fuzzy soundscape. While this may sound daunting in theory, the actual listen is immensely enjoyable. K-the-I??? brings the necessary chaotic energy required to keep up with Walter Gross’ evil production. As an emcee, K-the-I??? brought sharp lyrics which still had a distinct amount of dismay behind them. At times falling back into the production before emerging to smack the listener over the head with a rapid succession of thoughts. The vocals are also mixed in such a way that they felt as if they became a part of the noise. Coupling that up with the overall tone of the production choices created a very anxious and tense emotional experience.

Coming into this project may surprise those more familiar with Walter Gross’ solo efforts, as the production is quite a bit different. Though it has his signature crunchy noise feel, its much more stripped back to allow room for vocals. There also was a really interesting hip-hop flair to the instrumentals which maybe isn’t as prominent in some of Walter’s other work. “Kottihood” and “Guilt-Ridden Hate” in particular have a bounce to them one may not normally expect to hear in noise based music as much. Though the production was stripped back, it didn’t fall victim to becoming too simplistic. Walter Gross in all of his enigmatic glory, has also proven to be a master of restraint on this project.

The duo of remix tracks appearing at the end are also enjoyable little listens. The WG-One-Take remix of “Kottihood” stands out as having been an incredibly interesting bonus listen after the joy of the rest of A Hunter’s Moon.

The x-factor in this project is the chemistry between Walter Gross and K-the-I???. To pull off a sound as ambitiously challenging as Youth:Kill’s without it sounding forced, there has to be a good connection between the producer and emcee. This project felt entirely natural. Neither the vocals nor the instrumentation needed each other to be enjoyable, but when combined together they elevated to new heights mutually. Really, that’s the mark any collaborative project needs to try and hit. A Hunter’s Moon was an incredibly sturdy EP. If you’re a fan of either Walter or K-the-I??? it could, and should, be considered a must listen release that will fly under many listeners’ radar.

Album Review: Walter Gross – Super Basic

by Dustin

superbasic

8/10

Ah, Walter Gross. One of the most creative noise-based musicians alive. A little early this year we took a look at his Black Box Tapes release, Vestige. An album which was, and still is, one of the best releases to date in 2017. Moving with the swiftness of a sparrow Walter Gross has already ventured into another release, Super Basic. This release isn’t a really a follow up to Vestige, instead it is a collection of material recorded between 2015 and 2017 (according to his BandCamp page) being released completely DIY both digitally and on cassette. These sorts of beat-tape releases can be slightly unpredictable; however, when they’re from an artist known for experimenting with sound they’re usually worth checking out. They’re unrestrained and free from the need to fit an overarching sound, and usually loaded with interesting tidbits and lost cuts.

Walter Gross is exactly that type of artist, and Super Basic is a very interesting tape.

Super Basic feels like a cutting room floor of ideas, experiments, and loose ends that make up Walter’s progression as a musician. The songs have this loose quality to them that definitely feels like an assortment of not entirely fleshed out thoughts. The track names lend to this rough cut experience, with titles such as “Party Loop”, “Cut I”, and “Cut II” feeling as unpolished as the songs themselves; the ruggedness of Super Basic is not a negative quality by any means however. It leads to somewhat of a scattered experience, but it makes it feel as if the listener is being granted insight into the method behind the madness of Walter Gross.

Even the packaging of the cassette release is a little rough around the edges (in the best way possible). There’s some previews up on BandCamp of the physical release, and it really adds an element to the aesthetic. The digital art (as seen above) is similarly simplistic yet beautiful. The way he’s crafted all elements of this album by hand is admirable, to say the very least.

As far as the music goes, there are some genuinely beautiful moments on Super Basic. The vocal melody on “Cookie” for example is absolutely gorgeous and has this delicious contrast with the noisy, glitchy, sauntering drum line. “Hierophant I” is another stunning piece on this album. It has this crunchy distorted wall of noise at the forefront of the song, with a very subtle meditative nearly-angelic sound slipping through the cracks (and eventually closing out the track). That’s not to say that the rest of the tape isn’t also very cool – which it is – but hearing these moments of blissful relaxation hidden in the noise is breathtaking. It provides a wonderful balance, and gives weight to the most abrasive moments on Super Basic.

There’s also a really nice amount of variation on this beat tape. There are looping moments that drone on, hellishly insane noise tracks, and even some bits that feel hip-hop influenced. It gives one a sample of the range Walter Gross is capable of playing with.

Super Basic may not quite be the powerhouse album that Vestige is, but it’s really not intended to be. Walter’s assortment of sounds on this project are the ultimate fanfare. Even though Super Basic shows off his varying styles, it most likely would not be the best jumping off point for a new listener. That being said, as an established fan this tape is a seductive sampler platter featuring everything lovable about his music. Super Basic totally encapsulates the do-it-yourself and gritty nature of Walter Gross. Perhaps it’s even safe to say that this is him in his rawest form; dirtied up, a little bit chaotic, but an absolute blast to sit through.

Album Review: Walter Gross – Vestige

by Dustin

wgv

9/10

After a decade and a half in the scene, it’s safe to say that Walter Gross is a well-seasoned veteran when it comes to do-it-yourself music. He’s also an artist who has gone through some very interesting times recently. In his released statement about Vestige – the album which this review is tackling – he spoke on the circumstances that gave birth to this album. Moving from America to Berlin, losing the source material in an equipment failure, and creating art in circumstances less than ideal. The end result is this album. An album that serves as an exercise in growth for an artist, and perhaps even somewhat of a musical rebirth.

As a side note, this album is coming via Black Box Tapes. That might not exactly be a household name at this point, but it’s a label run by a classic figure in the underground hip-hop community, Sole. Those who are hugely into rap (and read this site) might find it interesting to know what he’s up to these days… Anyway, onto Walter Gross’ absurdly powerful record!

Vestige sounds like the demented stepchild to post-rock. Walter Gross has blended the melodic evils of groups such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Viet Cong (now known as Preoccupations) with his classic breed of experimental electronic to create a unique beast. The instrumentation on this album hits like a noisy wall of sound; while it is probably more accessible than much of Walter’s work, Vestige is in no way an easy album to sink your ears into. While a song such as “Naked Lunch” may have a delectable, head bobbing bass-line, there are copious noise elements happening simultaneously. This leads to a wonderfully challenging listen; moreover, Vestige feels like an album that will retain replayability as there will always be new elements to discover within songs. Amazingly the stylistic differences between tracks – which at times can be quite vast – don’t hurt the cohesiveness of the album. Every song has its place within the environment of Vestige.

A prime example of this is the punk-chant “Fixated on the Light” coming immediately after a much more hip-hop oriented ending to “Window.” Their sounds couldn’t exist in further worlds, yet Walter Gross found a way to bring them together and make it work in a way which felt entirely natural.

The focus on vocals is also very intriguing for a Walter Gross album, and to be completely honest it was refreshing and worked flawlessly. In true post-punk fashion, the vocals are often muddy, aggressive, unnerving, and hidden back slightly in the tracks. They’re unconventional, but so is the entirety of Vestige. Even when the vocals exist purely in a murky haze of words, the way they compliment the instrumentation is gorgeous. They’re not technical darlings, yet they work well.

It’s reminiscent in ways to how Ian Curtis made imperfect singing sound cool in Joy Division. It just fits the atmosphere and tone of the music exceptionally well.

While Walter Gross has been a mainstay figure in the do-it-yourself music community for years, he has reached a new level on Vestige. While it might not be quite as consistently unnerving as some of his releases (such as Goner, for example), it is a mind-melting play-through. The elements of noise, post-rock, punk, hip-hop, and genres yet-to-be named laced throughout are an absolute treat to listen to. Sure, this album may not be a mass-consumable brand of music (and let’s be honest, Walter’s records never will be), but that’s exactly how it should be. The lack of pressure to stay chained to a particular sound has granted the freedom for a record like this to exist. Vestige is a prime example of the power behind the do-it-yourself route in music. There’s something special in the clarity of an artist making the kind of music they want to make, and hitting a sort of full musical realization. That holds true in spades for this release. Vestige is the type of album that should (but won’t) get consideration on top album lists when the year comes to a close.

Also, it should be mentioned that the mixing sounds great. Shout-out to Michael J. Collins of FilthyBroke Recordings (who we interviewed a little earlier this month).

Seriously, if you want to listen to some genre-bending futuristic-but-retro post-punk-yet-electronic (hyphens, so many goddamn hyphens) massive tunes then keep your eye on this record. This is the type of pallet-cleansing releases that are an absolute joy to experience for the first time. The physical release isn’t quite here yet (that tape looks beautiful, though), but it can be streamed/downloaded on Walter Gross’ BandCamp right this very moment.

The Media That Refuses to Die: Cassette

by Dustin

cassette

“What is that?” my buddy asks as I pull another parcel from the mailbox, “don’t tell me you’re still collecting music”.

You see, my friend doesn’t quite understand the point of collecting physical media when it comes to music. He sees CDs and vinyl as a waste of money when I’ve already got a Spotify subscription. The argument that I want better sound quality usually shuts him up, since streaming can be questionable at times in that regard.

Unfortunately that argument will not work with this shipment.

My friend remains interested as I rip apart the yellow envelope from Darling Recordings. I explained to him that the album is by a really cool experimental group called FLANCH. He seems interested in the sound and implies that he would like to listen to it once I finish my painfully slow unwrap job; however, his interest turns to confusion as I reveal the contents of the envelope.

He looks at me and his face screws up into an indescribable expression. In a moment of baffled realization he asks the question, “is that a fucking cassette?”

cassette2

Though this may sound ridiculous to some, cassette has seen a huge resurgence in the past couple years via the independent scene. The companies which produce cassette tapes are reportedly having their best years since the 1960s. For example, the National Audio Company reportedly produced over ten million cassettes in 2014 alone. For something once considered defunct this is a huge comeback, and it is almost rooted entirely in the independent music scene.

But why? To help answer that question we touched base with Nick Faidley. Nick is the founder of independent label Darling Recordings, an outfit which has released multiple cassettes (including FLANCH, mentioned earlier in this article). He offered up the following insight as to why cassettes have seen such a heavy revival:

Darling Recordings has turned to tapes for the many of the same reasons as other independent labels and musicians: cassettes are low cost, low hassle, and easy for bands to use on the merch table. For us it’s really that simple. Tapes are affordable at low quantities, unlike vinyl (incredibly expensive) and CDs (large minimum orders), and they can be completely DIY.

Darling runs its cassette manufacturing with a wonderful company out of Ohio called A to Z Audio.

As Nick stated, cost is a huge factor. Unlike major outfits, most independent labels only do limited releases for physical editions of records. These are generally in the 20-100 copies range. The price per unit for limited runs is cheaper on cassette than any other physical media; moreover, a price per unit quote (on a 100 album order) from a Canadian duplication company shows that the difference is extreme:

CD with Jewel Case and Insert: $4.90/each
Vinyl Record with Colour Cover: $9.00/each
Cassette with Clear Case and J-Card Insert: $1.85/each

Cassette is the clear cut choice based on cost alone, and for small independent labels every dollar counts. Perhaps physical media is no longer a necessity with the rise of digital distribution, but fans will always be looking to get their hands on merch. Cassettes are a cost effective way to provide this to fans (whether it be online, in a record store, or at a show). In addition to it being good for the label, cassette releases are generally cheaper for the consumer as well. It’s very much a win-win for those interested.

Though more subjective, there’s also a collectible feel to cassettes that seems to offer up a lot of appeal. There’s certainly a degree of nostalgia involved to a particular generation, but to others they just seem “cool”. They’re just so much different when compared to CDs and vinyl. Cassettes have a particular minimalistic and rugged appearance that seems to draw a certain crowd in. Even the listening experience, though maybe not the best in terms of sound quality, is incredibly unique. The tape hiss, the sound of the cassette deck mechanism, the sudden jarring click when a side runs out…

It’s something that can’t really be compared to anything other music media, for better or worse.

Interestingly, this wave of cassette revival has become big enough that some major labels have started to jump on the bandwagon. A recent example of this is Shady Records re-issuing Eminem’s major imprint debut, The Slim Shady LP, on a translucent purple cassette. To no ones surprise, the re-issue was incredibly popular. It doesn’t seem like this will be a regular trend such as vinyl releases, but it definitely speaks to the size of cassettes resurgence.

For all intents and purposes cassette should be dead, but it’s not. They’ve found their way back into the music scene by carving a niche which no other media can really occupy. What cassette lacks in sound quality it more than makes up for in affordability, making them the ultimate budget merchandise. It’s a revival that maybe no one expected, but it’s working out beautifully for artists around the globe.

So, the next time you see a cassette just remember: your uncle who owns a Mustang from the 1980s with a tape-deck isn’t the only person looking to buy cassettes anymore.

Album Review: clipping. – Splendor & Misery

by Dustin

sm

8.5/10

It definitely seems as if we’ve written about clipping. a lot, but they’re one of the most active and unique rap groups out current. Who can blame us? Anyway…

To say that Daveed Diggs is popular right now would be an understatement. Fortunately, for fans of the Los Angeles based experimental rap trio clipping., he’s not abandoned his work in the world of weird. With an EP (Wriggle) already under their belt for the year, clipping. is back again with a full length followup to 2014’s CLPPNG. Released under Sub Pop Records and popular experimental outfit Deathbomb Arc, Splendor & Misery looks to keep clipping.’s hot-streak of releases at full steam.

With Splendor & Misery, clipping. took a step in a different direction from previous releases. The album follows the story of the sole survivor of an uprising, his life on an interstellar transport ship, and his relationship with the on-board computer. The concept is unique, and provided Digg’s the opportunity to flex his storytelling ability at every turn. He flawlessly maneuvers over the wild production, proving time and time again that he is one of the more versatile emcees in hip-hop. Tracks like “Baby Don’t Sleep” are beautifully unnerving, and it big part of this is Daveed’s vocal control and delivery. All in all, a wonderful vocal performance throughout the entirety of Splendor & Misery.

No home, you’ve been there,
Clearly off safety,
No destination,
No time for waiting,
Saviors are fiction,
Memories fading,
like ghosts, ghosts, go.
(Baby Don’t Sleep)

The production is basically what is to be expected from a clipping. album. It’s abrasive, loud, and fuzzy. The main difference on Splendor & Misery is that the instrumentals tend to be more spaced out than a lot of their previous work. Given the concept of the album, this is completely understandable and sets a well defined mood behind Deveed’s vocals. Atmosphere is the main strength of the production on this album. Though it might not necessarily carry that touch of traditional hip-hop the group is known for, the instrumentation is well execute. Hudson and Snipes rarely disappoint.

Though the album is a fantastic piece of art-rap, Splendor & Misery does have one minor flaw. There was a single moment which did not feel as though it fit the overall sound of the record. “Story 5” . Coming off a long run of incredibly cohesive work, the acapella felt very out of place. Unlike the previous “story” tracks on clipping. releases, it was not a standout track; regardless, It is still a pleasant listen and quite interesting, but in the grander picture of Splendor & Misery it was a jarring shift in sound.

Listeners who go into Splendor & Misery expecting the heavy hitting blend of conventional rap and noise may be in for a bit of a shock. This album is definitely a departure from the norm for clipping. as a group. Splendor & Misery should be approached as a conceptual art album, and not put in the same category as their previous works. Fortunately, for those who find themselves missing the sounds clipping. played with on previous releases the EP from earlier this year is jam packed with heavy, easier to digest songs.

This ain’t healthy to be held to blame,
Once you help me, now you abandon me,
What you’re tellin’ me by not tellin’ me?,
Anything, anything,
I’d give anything if you’d say my name,
Don’t you play with me, it’s an emergency.
(Break the Glass)

Don’t discredit Splendor & Misery for that reason, however. This album seems to be the moment that clipping. really discovered who they are as artists. From a conceptual standpoint this is the groups strongest effort. It was an absolute treat to see them tapping into some hidden potential. They took a risk with a release that is unconventional even for clipping., and it paid off with a solid final product.

Album Review: clipping. – Wriggle

by Dustin

wriggle

7.25/10

You might assume that involvement with the critically acclaimed Hamilton would keep Tony Award winning actor and rapper Daveed Diggs from being involved with clipping for the present. Fortunately, assuming that would be completely incorrect! Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes joined forces once again to craft Wriggle, a six track extended play follow up to 2014’s CLPPNG.

Strap yourself in…

As one would expect with a clipping. project, Wriggle is abrasive. Though the instrumentals feel less noise heavy than their last full length projects, it’s significantly darker in tone than CLPPNG. Wriggle at times sounds absolutely evil, yet it has some of the groups most accessible work. Hutson and Snipes did an excellent job at setting up the atmosphere of the EP, creating a tightly cohesive twenty minutes of unnervingly addictive and angry instrumentals.

Look at all the folk runnin’, marathon,
Like they ain’t got baggage, carry-ons,
Killin’ is the best medicine, diagnosis,
Got death on his breath, halitosis.
(Shooter)

Diggs comes in on this project as sharp as ever. His development as a rapper shines on the tracks “Shooter” and “Wriggle”. As usual, he flawlessly flows atop of the harsh and dense instrumentation. At times his furious rapid fire delivery was on full display, particularly on the aforementioned title track “Wriggle”. His more poetic writing style took a bit of a backseat here (aside from on the track “Our Time”), but it didn’t hold his performance back. There’s not much else to analyze about his performance on Wriggle, aside from the fact that it is consistently very good.

Rarely does Daveed Diggs falter while working with clipping., and that holds true on this project.

She stops by the window of the Walgreens,
Her mascara a mess of a mask,
Gonna pull out a tissue but instead pulls out a phone for a text,
And the flask rattles round in the purse,
A reminder that medicine is already there for the taking,
And the snap when she puts the cap back,
She’s convinced is the sound of her heart breaking.
(Our Time)

Wriggle also boasted an impressive list of features for a short project. Those familiar with Deathbomb Arc affiliated artists will be excited to see another Signor Benedick the Moor collaboration (along with Antwon) on the track “Back Up”. Cakes da Killa, Nailah Middleton, and Maxi Wild also provided their efforts to the tape. With Wriggle clocking in at a modest twenty minutes in length, there was the potential for a poor feature to stand out; however, every artist brought something worthwhile.

As a side note, Cakes da Killa’s “Hot Fuck No Love” appearance may be one of the most sexually graphic verses since Gangsta Boo rapped on Run the Jewels’ song “Love Again”. It fit absolutely brilliantly on the song for this very reason.

The only real downside to Wriggle is that it is short. This is completely reasonable though, as clipping. announced a full length album to come later this year via Sub Pop and Deathbomb Arc. Wriggle serves to hold fans over, and it does that job well. The twenty minutes of gritty, angry, hyper-sexual, and violent lyrics offers up plenty of content to digest in the meantime.

With that in mind, if you approach this expecting something overly substantial you might be disappointed. As a collection of songs leading up to an album release though, clipping. has remained as interesting as ever.