The piano is an underused instrument in today’s underground. In the past, it was the choice noise maker for John Cage and Henry Cowell and others but as far as contemporary experimental music goes, Tim Hurley (Quetzolcoatl, Bonecloud) uses it a fair amount but I’m having trouble thinking of too many others. It’s a shame, cause the piano can make some amazing sounds, though they are expensive and a pain in the ass to tour with which may explain their rarity. Anyway, there’s actually a reason for the rumination. The subjects of this review are killer and totally different tapes created almost solely from pianos.
Horse Boys is a dude named Zach Phillips cranking out 39 lo-fi, neo-ragtime pieces in 40 minutes. And not to give away the end of review… it fucking rules! This is one of the best things I’ve heard all year. The pieces are sometimes tense and almost percussive like “What is Waking Up Like Sometimes” or “Who is Jeering at Me” and sometimes they’re incredibly sweet like the 17 second “What is the Adult World Like” and the layered, vibrant and borderline-frantic “What is Cartoons Like”. And sometimes, Phillips unleashes a seriously monstrous, tidal groove as in “What is Always Angry Like” where an amazingly catchy, groovy bass line is repeated and varied while Phillips just goes to town with fantastic, bluesy improvisations. An absolutely brilliant piece. On the second side after a series of dissonant false starts, “What is Discipline Like” launches into a mellow, Blues Control-ish drum machine/piano saunter. “What is a Bad Circle Like” explores a tape collage approach to piano playing and “What is Intimacy Like” glides along on lilting, jazzy improvisation. The 20 seconds of “Home” are lovingly melodious and followed up immediately by the agitated “What is Going to Church Like” which only provides a brief respite from the fearless flurry of notes near the end. “Lack of Resolution of Sequel of Sick Woods” is a magnificent score for an unwritten chase scene. Pulsing, complex and brimming with intrigue and suspense. “Investigation Gala for the Missing Years” turns up near the end and it feels well-placed. It’s full of good cheer and a triumphant “we’ll be seeing each other again soon” vibe. The finale “What is a Good Circle Like” continues this sensation but duets with a sawing violin until the tape’s close. There's so much more great stuff but I'll leave that to you to discover.
My favorite track of the whole tape comes early on the first side. “What are Ants Like” features a very dissonant, high end arpeggio for a good 40 seconds before introducing a fucking fantastic bass undertow. The bass part resembles Carter Burwell’s recent and brilliant score in Burn After Reading if you are familiar with that. This guy really has virtuoso chops and more impressively, he knows how to employ them extremely well. The piece is furious and a little unsettling but so complexly and perplexingly melodic at the same time. It feels like at any moment the composition could lose control, spin out and burst into flames. That or the boombox this was recorded on might. This is the most caustic and primal thing I’ve ever heard come out of a piano. Just before its conclusion there’s a shift to half-time revealing a dramatic, damn near florid outro. This tape is infinitely listenable and the end of every piece leaves you itching to hear the next.Really, really fantastic and obviously highly recommended; this thing is so damn unique and wonderful its worth tracking down at any cost.
I was thinking recently about how fittingly named Stunned records is. It seems like every time they put out new tapes, it’s always great surprise: killer music by artists of all stripes that I’ve never heard of (see the recent Albero Rovesciato tape for ultimate proof.) So what happens when Stunned puts out a tape by someone I have heard of? Total surprise again. Super Minerals (a duo of William Giacchi and Mr. Stunned himself, Phil French) have explored everywhere in the world of wet and dry drone, so naturally I expected more of the same. What I got instead was an astonishing cassette of moody piano emanations. The bulk of the first side is a thicket of tangled piano hits. I can’t quite tell if there’s multi-tracking going on or if there are just two pianos going at it——which would actually be pretty rad. The piece is based around a single cluster of notes, of which endless variations are supplied. Giacchi and French create a nice aura here though it gets to be a bit on the long side, the piece is pretty unchanging throughout its twenty minutes. The final 3 minutes of the side hold a strange clattering piece which adds some bells to the mix and heavily treats the piano (I’m guessing its still piano.) There’s a subtle sustained tone that holds the piece and all criss-crossed percussively employed notes together. Around halfway though the piece, it settles into an oddly propelled rhythm, conjuring up a vague resemblance to Cantonese opera. A really neat piece.
The flip side is broken into four parts. The first piece opens with billowing clouds of piano run through a million delay pedals. Chimes provide a constant, soft rattle. Melodies are slowly unfolded emerging through the mistiness of the piano compound. Drone music is, in a way, just focusing on overtones which Super Minerals does here. By piling hundreds of notes on top of each other a real thick sea of sound is achieved, letting all the notes cross-pollinate and sound awesome. The next piece dials down the drone a bit, focusing slightly more on the waves and rolls of sound coming straight from the piano itself rather than on layering. Giacchi and French summon some sheer beauty here, strikingly elegant and fully formed. They do an excellent job molding pretty melodies and intricate textures with and within all the notes. The third piece might be my favorite; beginning with a creaking, spacey timbre anchored by mild but thunderous low-end which gives way to an utterly lovely and much too brief chiming melody with a palpably tactile quality. Like some long lost recording recently unearthed. The final piece has less of a lush texture like the first two on the side but features swelling hills and ravines of sound. I’m wondering where/how this was recorded because I’m hearing some birdsongs buried way down in the mix. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t recorded in an aviary so I’m gonna guess it’s just overtones or something like that but its interesting nonetheless. Clusters is a great little tape and showcases Super Minerals stretching themselves in an impressive manner.
Horse Boys is still available as far as I can tell. OSR Tapes is a really strange but great label (more reviews of their works to come) so good luck navigating their website. The Horse Boys myspace offers to give you the tape if you ask about it so that may be the preferred route. Ltd. to 100.
As far as the Super Minerals goes, it wouldn’t be a Stunned release if it was in stock. However, 111 were made so that’s an added chance of picking a copy up at a distro.