Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he explores music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
In the best way, Bandcamp has become a large-scale infrastructure for a theoretically infinite amount of independent musicians, an encompassing DIY home for a new generation, and (for now) non-corporate path outside Amazon, Spotify, and iTunes for young artists’ streaming/downloading/distribution needs. Less than a label, but also far more, Bandcamp is the tool that (this month) links new releases by a one-bit composer coding music directly onto circuits, a cassette compiling essential cuts by a legend of New Zealand music, and an ad-hoc avant-garde protest-jazz ensemble from North Carolina, among others. Like any streaming service in any medium, Bandcamp is necessarily incomplete, but it doesn’t aim to be anything other than a functional third path for musicians.
Although it’s available as audio files via Bandcamp and on CD, Tristan Perich‘s Noise Patterns truly and literally lives in the physical edition on Perich’s label, Physical Editions, hard-coded onto a circuit-board with a headphone jack in its side. Where many of Perich’s compositions combine warmly bleeping one-bit electronics and live musicians into something instantly pleasing (such as the piano/one-bit sweep of “Surface Image”), Noise Patterns plunges into the deep space of sound, rigorous and not entirely welcoming. Rhythms collide and spread out, the bits jumping and soaring through the stereo field like obedient atoms. Almost unbearable at times, Noise Patterns challenges the listener to discern and maybe even groove with the structures within. Harsh and nearly impenetrable at first, especially if listened to out loud, the music is the equivalent of staring into a strobe light, or perhaps — more accurately — Byron Gysin’s fabled Dreamachine, capable of triggering hallucinations when operated to its fullest capacity. Would maybe be amazing on acid or mushrooms. Maybe.
Chris Knox never had Bandcamp; the veteran New Zealand DIY songwriter released songs through the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s on tapes and singles and LPs and compilations and one-offs and CD-Rs with different bands (mostly the Tall Dwarfs, with partner Alec Bathgate) and beyond. Knox suffered a stroke in 2009, releasing music occasionally, and the new cassette KnoxTraxFine (conveniently available on Bandcamp) offers a 24-track anthology of his scattered solo work, a delightful range of Beatle-loving folk punk. The drum machine snarl of the lead-off “Ice In Yr Head” (above) — from the 2003 compilation, Here Come the Bulletholes — is one the collection’s extreme grippers, but the 76-minute tape folds in sweet and funny Beatles covers (“Baby You’re A Rich Man”), alternate versions of Knox classics (“Not Wedding Lightly”), covers (The Chills’ “Whole Weird World”), and more, all communicating Knox’s full spirit of benevolent provocation.
The Air Horn Orchestra is a live band, so to speak, and their Bandcamp documents ten of their performances since their formation in the spring in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they have appeared almost exclusively outside the mansion of governor Pat McCrory to protest the state’s bathroom-regulating HB2 bill. Organized by Tina and Grayson Haver Currin, the group might properly get filed under drone or free jazz should they ever put out an album (indeed, Grayson was Pitchfork’s Out Door co-columnist until recently). Despite the intentions to disrupt the Sunday afternoon of the governor and his guests (“This afternoon we performed for the Jesse Helms Society,” reads the note on one performance), the general tone of the music is one of celebration, carrying the decades-old good news of liberation. The Air Horn Orchestra comes with the full freedoms and urgencies of ’60s jazz, and a potentially durable structure for composition, such as the stirring “Performance No. 10: 49 Hits, then Silence,” honoring the victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting. It is hardly angry music, though, with vuvuzela-like noisemakers and drum sections potentially creating an anarchic rhythm section for visiting free jazz/fire music soloists. Super sessions await.
G.W. Sok thought he was done with music when he stepped down from his longtime position as frontman of the veteran anarchist Dutch punk band, The Ex. He thought wrong, and Listen to the Painters collects over a dozen collaborations since he quit the band in 2009. The music ranges from gentle harp-drifting song-poems, like “Writer’s Song” (with the Lyon-based L’Etrangleuse), to skewed noise-pop declarations, like Surplus 1980’s “The World’s Still Here.” In places, the music sounds similar to his work by his former band (like the horn-aided “Ghetto of Eden” with King Champion Sounds) or just generally stays close to the tree. Accidentally, surely, “The Sound of Sirens” (recorded with The Bent Moustache) even uses the same central pun as “We’ve Got A Crisis,” an anthemic dance-punk track by Arnold de Boer, Sok’s replacement in The Ex. In de Boer’s song, recorded under his pseudonym, Zea, the lyric is “we dance to the sound of sirens.” Sok’s iteration is wearier. “They will be silenced with the sound of sirens,” he sings, in the end, though Listen to the Painters is anything but the sound of defeat, but new possibilities and new strategies for an old mission, reaffirmed.
The realm of the experimental solo pedal steel guitarist will probably remain a lonely one. Pedal steels are hard to set up and those capable of it usually seem to like playing with other people. In the case of Susan Alcorn‘s newest album, Evening Tales, it is likewise in the hands of a hip but tiny vinyl-only label, Mystra, with spray-painted covers, and no real digital presence. But Alcorn has done her share of collaboration, her string of solo pedal steel playing is a chain of portable and near-perfect atmospheres. Like Daniel Lanois (who has his own solo pedal steel album, Goodbye To Language, out in September), it’s the long slide between tones that sets up the music’s atmosphere. Unlike Lanois and others, though, Alcorn isn’t afraid to jump from ethereal glides to diving noise figures, as on the disc-opening “Sapphire.” But even after turning down atonal corners, she retains her melodic sensibility. Most of the pieces don’t need to evoke anything unpleasing at all, contemplative billows over a landscape all Alcorn’s own.