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Miscellaneous - Life Changing or Not ?

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 11 / 3 / 2003

Miscellaneous - Life Changing or Not ?


Benjamin Howarth has never been quite sure what to make of experimental music, but looking at the latest records by Fred Frith, Chris Cutler and Keith Christmas, tries to work out just how life changing it really is

Fred Frith- Guitar Solos Chris Cutler-Solo Keith Christmas-Acoustica When I’m worrying about music, being picky and being scared that my record collection isn’t as good as I like to think, experimental music is one of my greatest concerns. I never know what to make of it. Sometimes I feel that it’s worthwhile and sometimes I think it’s just far too hard to listen to. Sometimes I think it crosses (or in fact, leaps miles over) that fine line called pretension. It's not like I worry about this ALL the time, but I am a music writer and it's kind of my job. When I decided to compare three instrumental albums, all played on a single instrument, all these concerns started to come back. Having finished listening to these three records, I was immediately looking through my CD collection, trying to find all the CDs I have that could be considered experimental. Of course, the eye can’t avoid those two famous Radiohead albums. 'Kid A' is an album I love, and to me it doesn’t sound the slightest bit weird. 'Idioteque' might be based around fractured breakbeats and looped vocals, but it’s a lovely track – really danceable. 'Amnesiac' I like a little less. I’m not blown away by some of the tracks. Then again, 'Pyramid Song' and 'In A Glasshouse' are two of my favourite songs. Yet, I don’t imagine the sort of people who read Pennyblackmusic are the sort of idiots that think that Radiohead have sold out and should have stuck to the tunes. In fact, you guys are probably more likely to say that 'Kid A' is a bit too mainstream for me. It's just a stadium rock band pissing about. The real gold is in this White-label Freaky Drum ‘N’ Bass World Loungecore 12” you picked up in Camden. And you’re probably right. Good records, for sure, but I don’t really think that Radiohead are experimental enough for this article. What about death metal? That’s about the most unlistenable stuff on the planet. I am a fan of the great Nile (its Ancient Egyptian death metal – how can you possibly not like that?!) and I did once get a free CD from Terrorizer magazine, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of it goes. But as elitist and extreme as this music is, it rocks. I’m not convinced that you can really call something that sends a moshpit of greasy metallers into a frenzy “experimental”. I’m not convinced if death metal is really any good at all, but grown men making utter fools of themselves does have a more than limited appeal! Music can be extreme without being unlistenable, I suppose. Therefore, does that mean that truly experimental music has to be unlistenable? The Warp artists aren’t, and nor are bands like Dillinger Escape Plan or Mike Patton’s Fantomas. We can probably narrow our definition of experimental music into everything that doesn’t fit into other genres/scenes. Like Autechre’s 'Confeld'. This is an album made by one of the coolest groups on the Warp records roster, which was released with a stream of lavish critical praise. But it is made up of random beats, no tunes and not even any discernable rhythms. I can listen to this record intently, but even after owning it for nearly a year and a half, I haven’t the faintest clue what the point of it is. Yet, its sheer weirdness fascinates me. Which brings me nicely onto the first of three albums, which are the reason for this discussion. All three are solo albums, recorded on a single instrument and are all instrumental. Chris Cutler’s 'Solo' is an album made only on Electrified Percussion. It is not an album for the faint hearted, and it is not going to be successful background music. In sound, it isn’t dissimilar to electronica, but Cutler plays every beat on this record by hand. Recorded entirely live (Cutler states in his fascinating sleeve notes that he can never work up the motivation to improvise alone in the studio), the technical skill is breathtaking. There are moments, if you listen to this record very loud and preferably on headphones when you feel it is going to engulf the entire world. It’s a great record to have with you for a long train journey. I kind of feel that it validates the whole point of experimental music. Sure, it really won’t win a large audience, and nor does it shed any light on the ways of the world. But it can engulf you, captivate you and define the atmosphere of your world. Unfortunately, this record isn’t perfect. Whilst certain parts of it are intense, the recording itself is flawed and sometimes the ambitious percussion is not clear on the recording. When you’re treading that fine line between noise and genius, you really do need good production. Perhaps that is the downside of recording live, which is a shame, because parts of it are excellent. And unlike electronica, I feel genuinely sure that it isn’t something anybody with a drum machine or a laptop could recreate. 'Guitar Solos' is by Fred Frith, who has been the subject of a Pennyblackmusic feature in the past. He’s been a mainstay of the avant-garde music scene since the 70's. But I haven’t the faintest idea what this terrible album thinks it is. I usually like to think I can see the positive in every record, but it’s awful. I’ve tried really hard to listen to it properly, but nothing gets me interested at all. Frith isn’t an especially great guitar player. Sure the playing is complicated but it goes nowhere. It sounds like no thought has been put into this at all. I hope that isn’t the case, but with no sleeve notes to help me out all I’m left with is a random burst of noises that doesn’t begin to explain itself. Whilst Cutler’s album wasn’t perfect, it had a little something that Frith’s album really doesn’t. 'Guitar Solos' sums up all the negative aspects of experimental music and is completely unlistenable. The final record of this little collection is by Keith Christmas and, titled 'Acoustica', is recorded entirely on acoustic guitar. I really enjoyed this. It’s a light breezy album – great for a summer’s day or for playing whilst you’re working. Yet, despite the fact that a single instrument is all that appears, I find it hard to call it truly experimental. It sounds like it could have been a Nick Drake outtake. Of the three albums, 'Acoustica' is the one I recommend, but it’s also the one that isn’t really THAT experimental. I’ve probably learned that music that is very experimental really isn’t going to excite me as much as bands that stick to the basics (chords, regular rhythms). None of these albums have entirely convinced me that experimental music is anything more than pretentious trash. But I haven’t given up on it quite yet. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to answer the question I set myself in the title, but my desire to try means that I’ll probably never stop buying this weird music.

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