Unassailable. Never to be bested. The one.
Oh, how to begin. To Live and Shave in L.A., named after a mid 1980's porn video, have put out a noise record. For the unfamiliar, the texture of the music is probably closest to harsh noise, but they're more varied, both within songs and across records, than that term usually implies: on record, their usual bag has been studio manipulation of live performances in a band format, usually guitar, drum, oscillators, and voice, and Super Halitosis is based almost entirely on voice samples. In a fashion appropriate to their mighty status, they've changed line-ups a few times and spawned a raft of side projects and semi-legitimate spinoff bands (I Live in L.A., To Live and Shave in Laura Ashley, To Live and Shave in L.A. 2, etc.), but the core of the band has always been vocalist/studio person Tom Smith, whose unusual merits will be described shortly. For this record, TLASILA would seem to be Tom Smith, Ben Wolcott, and Rat Bastard, joined by quite a few guests: Mr.Velocity Hopkins, Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers, and random passerbys at a Target among them. Good luck finding any of them, given the insane studio work on this record: Smith spent five continuous years putting together the final mix: the whole undertaking is clearly a magnum opus for the band, and this is the last thing that they are going to put out: it's hard to imagine how Smith's new project (Ohne, due out soon, improbably, on teutonic-clicking-noise-and-beeping label Mego) will compete. The sheer length and density of the record is amazing: it is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and not one second drags or comes across as filler. TLASILA has always put out great stuff, but nobody was expecting anything quite of this magnitude, and the record seems to already be spawning a clutch of rumors and speculation.
At any rate, more timely and better-informed reviews than mine have already been put out elsewhere (c.f. Chris Sienko and Larry Dolman's pieces in Blastitude, but there's so much to be said, and so much recognition due, that i'll put in my two cents. In short, The Wigmaker in Colonial Willamsburg is the best psychedelic record of the last ten years, overdriven to ridiculous High-Rise extremes, but with absolute clarity of every weird detail, a total collapse every ten seconds with no energy lost, and, the cherry on top, Tom Smith's beautiful voice.
First, the vocals. Smith's voice is a work of art on its own, and pretty much impossible to describe: a sleazy sex drawl modulating into an ass-on-fire screech into Vegas cigarette-lounge crooning. There is something supernatural about it, and in visualizing him singing I like to imagine his head expanding, contracting and developing bulges in sync with the music. He tends to sing on a single pitch, sliding and twisting notes for emphasis, working around a cramped, sickly melody that never fully appears. There is something hypnotic about the incantantory, monotonous declamation of the bizarre lyrics, and I can't help noting the resemblance to another notable vocalist named Smith: as with The Fall, there is the literary style and total inscrutability in the lyrics, mannered vocal accent, delerious, repetitive intonation of one line after another, and the sense that the music is somehow actively antagonistic to and tormenting the vocalist instead of "playing along".
Oh, the lyrics. The core around which the music wraps is a bizarre stylistic amalgamation of French Symbolism, 16th century epic poetry, and hot porno that seems calculated for impenetrability and frequently comes in rhymed couplets. Example: "Coitus itself became the sled of single, canonical scent/The pornographer, his flowering, galloping eye, sky of his delight/remained faithful to beloved Lucrece, and ogled and consumed." Eh? All of this obscurity is, in turn, very rarely intelligible in the music, as Smith obscures the words under the heavy production and nutcase declamation, but clearly, a hell of a lot of work went into making them. Trying to get "the point" behind this is like trying to decipher Linear B, but the surface is so overwhelming and dense that you still want to attempt it: and there is something mystical and obscure about this aspect of the music—like an enormous, sumptuous temple built to house a few chunks of unidentified human remains.
None of this really gets to the visceral charge of the music, though. While, yes, the production took five years, the record sounds like it could have been improvised in a single take: every edit is spontaneous, unexpected, and the overall rhythm of the music seems as completely intuitive as a live harsh noise performance: it's as if Smith recorded himself having a grand mal seizure in his bathroom, and the production was burned directly into the master tapes by unknown agents. Everything overloads, cuts off, splatters: I had ninety favorite parts of this record, and none of them lasted more than five seconds: the weird boinging quality of some of the noise chunks, the inexplicable screaming hosannas for "WIGMAKERRRR", a creepy-ass second voice buried in the mix in "New Poem Dramatized for Lux Cudgel", a nice bass drone in "Tortillon Fluff": and so on. A lot of the praise due for Wigmaker can also be said for good noise in general: it is both fascinating and viscerally aggressive, it makes you see things when you close your eyes, you vascillate between wanting to dance to it and sitting slack-jawed. It is not, however, good clean fun: there is a lingering sense of pain, corruption, and hellishness, concepts which have been so worn down by Reznorite nitwits that it seems unwise to elaborate. The involved Reformation-era pastiche of the lyrics actually feeds this: there is something about all the horny viscounts in bulging tights, sweaty chafed monks busting out of their hairshirts, piles of engaged jiggling rosy flesh, coupling, still adorned in boustiers and codpieces, smothered under roccoco glop, and, of course, gigantic metastatized wigs (imagine the smell), that seems a lot dirtier than the usual fishnets-n-booze sleaze imagery. The music seems like hellfire and damnation and Smith, in true satanic fashion, seems to be the wretch in torment and simultaneously enjoying himself.
The violence of the music is difficult to communicate: it is like watching footage of waterfalls cut into half-second shots; like watching an steelmill collapse while the machines simultaneously continue to pour and shape metal; it is like watching a high-rise demolition that goes on for two continuous hours, and so on. What is difficult to convey is the simultaneous complexity in all that violence. The music stays put at the edge of perceptible detail, making its points too quickly for consideration: in consequence, it acts on you: endless waves of jump cuts, digital-processing squiggles, and stereo placement effects force a kind of immediate intuitive reaction to the music. The whole affair is pretty clearly psychedelic in the original sense of the term, and there's a structural similarity between it and some 60's era noise goo blobs like the "free-form freakouts" in the first Red Krayola album. TLASILA's stuff is a good deal more complex and dense: it's easy to imagine there being specific names for each of the little bursts of sound, like each one came from an individual type of machinery. While there is a lot of use of samples and some of what is going on seems to be processing of live performances, forget trying to identify sources: I frequently had difficulty even figuring out what I was hearing, suddenly realizing one sound had stopped fifteen seconds ago, or that the vocals had come back in. The only identifiable musical sample, from The Alarm Clock's "Yeah", runs a scant five seconds of the record's running time: it's similarly difficult to identify what sounds were produced during the original performances at what was added in by Smith later (so if I'm short-shrifting the other musicians in this review, I apologize profusely).
There's a definite arc through the record: my favorite parts were in the second half of the second disc, where more samples and effects interrupt the music. First a weirdly bass-heavy, slowed-down sample "sunrise, sunset...sunrise, sunset" evokes the image of the song's once-normal crooners, now chanting in vacant-eyed insanity: the only explicit reference to Satan (a sample of a street preacher) occurs a little later. Next, a sample of someone quickly reciting multiplication tables like a panicked autistic trying to maintain mental order, followed by the loudest, noisiest most intricately put-together material yet: Mr. Smith sounds very unwell: the sample here, "Of course, visitors enjoy having their picture taken in the pillory and stocks." Next, he's processed through a shlocky, oversaturated keyboard bed, producing a sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of vocoders: the effect of patronizing dime store catharsis, nestled in the middle of all this hell, becomes oddly touching, like letting the damned man see God for a few seconds before he roasts. While the previous hour and a half of music is aggressive and disorienting, this final quarter is when a specific sense of psychological collapse and terror begins to set in: the unexpected intensification pulls the rest of the album's 140-minute length taut and focuses the menace and confusion.
Many of the 1960’s underground culture obsessions (mental derangement, atavism, satanic influence, etc.) are pretty clearly at play in Smith's mythos. Smith's collaborated not only with noise groups like Prick Decay, Chicago no-wave folk (there's a Lake of Dracula bit sampled into “Full Choke Wigmaker's Vise”), but also with Simeon from the Silver Apples (on “Tonal Harmony”). Likewise, both Tom Smith and the 1960's excel at shameless groin music, performed by sexually creepy weirdos in ridiculous outfits: groin music which is at the same time painstaking, adventuresome studio work drawing in every available sonic resource. Yes, in terms of subject matter, there's a more proximate connection to Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, Current 93 et. al., but To Live and Shave in LA doesn't really sound much like any of these fellows, most of whom were making dance records with slap-bass parts and "tribal drumming" within three years of their founding/splintering. Pure harsh noise (e.g. Masonna), which the Shave Boys sound more like, has always really been an extension of punk: crunching, black-and white, and, unlike Tom Smith, amateurist. Yes, TLASILA are “Punk As Fuck” or whatever, but so were the Sonics. The energy in TLASILA's stuff has more in common, in structure and in spirit, with Free Jazz, and Garage, than it does with mechnical thunking power chords and Oi grunts. And, need I reiterate, the music is damned psychedelic: the images it induces seem like the kind of things that would be produced by some weird Amazonian plant with an all-consonant name (I do not recommend listening to this music on any kind of mind-altering substance). The points of reference for this would probably be in the deeper reaches of 60’s underground whatnot: for this reason we will now descend into obscurantism.
In particular, consider the filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anger was a master of arduous studio manipulation: for example Eaux D'Artifice (which features a Shavesque wig) was filmed on Infrared film, with the one element of color (the lavender "Magic Fan" of the protagonist), painstakingly hand-tinted onto the print by Anger himself. Most of the films juxtapose elaborately acted and documentary footage (including a Hell's Angels initiation rite) with found material such as cheapo sunday-school Jesus films, 20's dance spectaculars and a bizarre scene of a fifty-foot plaster Moloch with moving arms devouring rag-clad female extras. Anger often combined all of these sources in quadruple or quintuple-exposed barrages, and the component images were always excessive: gushing waterworks, elaborately costumed Gods, leather enthusiasts, motorcycles, disembowelments, and drug-taking all feature prominently. In Wigmaker fashion, all of this was in the service of an incomprehensible, wildly elaborate occult text: while the Drug and Satan business is pretty clear, you need an outside reference to tell you that the central figure in Invocation of the Pleasure Dome is supposed to represent Shiva subsuming his guests in an orgy of destruction. Both Smith and Anger compulsively overlay material, both seem to have a close relation to the satanic and to Baroque pomp, and both are vaguely glam.
Also consider Intersystems's Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, a truly weird concept album that prefigured the Power Electronics voice-plus-noise formula by a good fifteen years, and which was reissued a few years back by the Cortical Foundation. A flat-voiced, clinical narrator tells of the adventures of young lovers Gordy and Marie, making their way in the plastic world. Gordy and Marie undergo head-expansion by unclear means through the course of the record ("Oh my God Gordy, the walls are moving, Gordy"). The music is mostly done with oscillators, and most strikingly tends to use sections of very abrasive high-pitched sine tones for thirty or forty-five second clips in between the narration, somewhat similar to Whitehouse. When not screeching away, the music tends to rely on other modes of disorientation like jumpy editing, and stereo-phasing effects. In spirit, the whole thing is still closer to TLASILA than Whitehouse, and it has the same sweep as Wigmaker, albeit more comprehensibly.
Of course, there are a lot of other connections. Wigmaker shares a principle or two with slasher movies: occasionally you will just barely hear a second voice under all the processing, slight enough to make you doubt that you heard it at all, and in the confusion you wonder if this quieter voice has been there all along. Also, the sheer speed and aggression of the jump cuts, the scariness of it all, the distorted moaning voice all could come from an 80's gorefest. The record even has a twist ending – one more song after the dopey reconciliatory travelogue, like when the hero finally gets to go to bed after the Night of Unspeakable Horror, wakes up, switches on the radio, and finds that all the stations are broadcasting nothing but low inhuman mumbling and atonal beeping.
So, that's the record. It's out on a great label, too, Menlo Park, which has put out music by Deerhoof, Frosty, Alva, and other folk. Snap it up if you get the chance.
Replay value is commonly accepted by music critics to be one of the primary qualities of a great record. By this logic, if you can't see yourself listening to an album, say, six months down the line, it may be a 'good' album you have on your hands, but not a great one, not transcendent, not a classic.
I have a problem with this yardstick because many of my favorite works of non-musical art have little 'replay value,' so to speak. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is probably my all-time favorite film, but I just don't have what it takes to watch it more than maybe once or twice a year. Likewise, Hans Holbein's painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is one of the most affecting works of art I've ever seen. I have no doubt of its greatness, but it's not something I'd want hanging in my living room. I'm not saying that all art forms should be judged by the exact same criteria-- but why should replay value be so important when it comes to music? Sure, everyone wants the most mileage for their money, but isn't there something to be said for one-time-only (or so) art kicks?
With this question in mind, consider The Wigmaker in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg from Miami-based sound-rapists To Live and Shave in L.A., a truly great album that, quite possibly, has less replay value than anything since Metal Machine Music, though the stakes with this release are considerably lower. If I ever put this double-disc set on again it's because I'm playing it for a curious friend, or I've sunk so deep into a bout with self-loathing that I want to cause irreparable damage to my nervous system.
The Wigmaker sounds as if, somehow, your stereo was broken in such a way that all the radio stations on the dial jumped through the speakers all at once. Jarring electronic squalls, squealing oscillators, bass rumbling like the earth shifting underfoot, and all imaginable sorts of computer-generated sound, found sound, and salvaged radio snippets pile up and stumble over each other, stopping and starting (nearly) at random.
Still, there are songs here, of sorts, albeit buried under a mountain of sonic debris. They bear brilliantly ridiculous titles like "Nor Swollen-Bellied Comet Blown", "New Poem Dramatized for Lux Cudgel", and "Is This Good for Vulva?". The lyrics, meanwhile, deal in psycho-sexuality, religious hallucinations and nightmarish flashbacks to A.P. American History class. Employing language that is purposefully stylized and mannered, it reads something like a perverse Lewis Carroll. Here's a sampling from "When My Rifle Went Sour with Preposterous Headdress": "Shit, the house was always Nazarin vibe, cuffs/ An unknown pinfold, fringe whore, licking its lips." Yeah, I'm mystified, too. But it makes no difference because you can't make out the words, anyway, what with all the racket going on and a vocal style that sounds like a deadpan version of Prince. All you know for sure is that whatever this guy is saying (his name is Tom Smith, by the way), he really, really means it, and this is his only way of saying it.
Which is exactly why The Wigmaker is a great album. It is totally convinced of its own necessity and is complete in its absurdity. From the perplexing cover art to its utterly indigestible length, there is no wink or nudge to suggest this is an elaborate put-on, no window left open to the real world. To Live and Shave in L.A., however, does declare this album "pre-"music, as distinguished from "post"-this-and-that subgenre classifications. And yes, it is an absolutely pretentious concept, but I admire Smith for making a bold claim and not pussyfooting around. Plus, true or not, it adds to his completeness and conviction. In a way, he's right: once you get past its admittedly high threshold (it took me about three or four attempts to build up the fortitude to make it through more than a few songs in a row), The Wigmaker does seem to take on a certain quality of necessity and "pre"-ness, though I'm not sure where one goes from there. Surely not back.
From Blastitude (review #1)
Admit it, in your heart of hearts, you want to dislike this record. It’s been promised to us for seven years, over half of TLASILA’s entire career! It seems like we’ve been waiting for it since the eighteenth century, hearing about this new mix or that tweaking of the libretto, how it’s almost done, and how we’re all going to be sorry for writing off Tom Smith. The hula-hoopla encircling Wigmaker’s sizeable midsection for at least the past four years is comparable to the epic advertisements for the summer blockbusters. This is the one that’s going to make our hearts beat faster, keep us glued to our seats, make us piss our pants with laughter, or love again like it was the first time. With each new mix, "Wigmaker" was going to be sharper, faster, better-hung and more opinionated than any of this year’s comers. Much like the summer blockbusters, you walk in with a nose primed to smell smoke and a eye open for errant mirrors. And friends, ain’t it a bitch when you leave the show and realize that it DID live up to all its promises? Now you’ve got to tell all your friends, "I just saw the best movie, but I don’t even know how to begin to describe it." Isn’t that the worst?
Trust me, I’ve been looking up one side and down the other for flaws. It’s too long, the lyrics are hard to hear, the songs seem samey after a while, it’s too dense to absorb. These were all valid complaints (to some degree or another) about past TLASILA discs, but they don’t seem to apply here, even though "Wigmakers" is longer, more incomprehensible, and denser than the rest of the Shave’s output combined.
Maybe it’s because this time, there seems to be a blueprint behind it all. Trouble is, the blueprint is written in a pre-Chaucer dialect (not literally), with an embedded sense of personal mythology and inaccessible symbolism that one would get reading diaries of departed alchemists. My initial impression of Tom’s lyrical influence was the Burroughs/Gysin school (it’s easier to satirize Tom’s writing style than comprehend it…check out the TLASILA 2 album titles), but the more I read the lyric sheet, the more I think about William Blake. Tracks like "Blandina, Oberwilding ‘77," ("Heat is the color of neutral desire/Her presence queered his well-groomed carrion calyx/Formed by its tumbling twigs") "The ‘Rose’ the Vehicle of Miss High Heels" and "New Poem Dramatized for Lux Cudgel" are more like apocalyptic psalms than cut-ups of "Hollywood Babylon." Greg Chapman’s unusually brief liner notes even point to the end times: "A fitting conclusion to the Shave’s pre-Apocalypse revolution … Doomsday comes for To Live and Shave In L.A., and the ship goes down in flames with many guests on board for the final ride. They will not be missed."
Ah yes, the guests. There really are a lot of them, and if you keep up at all with the underground movers and shakers not mentioned in Forced Exposure’s weekly new release list, you’ll know most of them. Prick Decay, Mr. Velocity Hopkins, Marlon Magas, Lake of Dracula, Emil Hagstrom, Bill Orcutt, KF36, you name it, they’re folded into here somewhere.
And that’s where my stammering about "Wigmaker" ends, the moment we start talking about the music. Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: you haven’t heard ANYTHING like "Wigmaker" before. Even if you have every other Shave album ever, including the live versions of these songs that have arrived on various limited cassette recordings. Very few records that are worked on for seven years sound like they’ve been worked for seven years. Anyone who’s had any interest in ’70s rock is used to waiting seven years for a favorite band to finish putting the final touches on their big dinosaur rock opus. But allowances are made in our minds even before buying the record – a year here for snorting coke off a groupie’s tummy, a year there for conquering the Himalayas with a network of sherpas, six months to teach little Reginald how to read (homeschooling all the way, you know), and months here and there for various personal fits and starts. It’s more like a year and a half of "hard" work.
"Wigmaker" is the only record I’ve ever heard that SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS WORKED ON CONTINUOUSLY FOR SEVEN YEARS. The mix is dense, yet completely lucid. I can hear at least four layers of different kinds of manipulations (tape edits, digital processing, computer manipulation, multitrack gymnastics), and I’m sure those with a degree in this stuff will hear more. It wasn’t a stonewall…when Tom said he was remixing this for a fiftieth time, he wasn’t stalling for time ("I’ll be right with you, I’m just…uh…packing my smokes"). Layers shift in and out of focus, dissolve to static, intentionally overload, desaturate, flip to negative and snap back into shape with nary a tear in the fabric. The only comparable mix I can think of is the Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock/Masonna collab "Arschloch-Onna," but the editing and momentum are different. Tom’s talk of dub as an influence really blooms in full on this one. "Arschloch" is edited like a noise album (albeit a very funny and big-hearted one), with edits and change-ups serving to escalate brutalities and throw random sucker-punches.
Like dub, the mix in "Wigmaker" takes semi-conventional "songs" (they’re in there somewhere, I’m sure of it) and digs at their internal organs in order to divine their hidden meaning. It’s not automatic writing, it’s rock n’ roll biology class, and today, we’re dissecting pickled no wave and glam rock fetuses.
Even with the excessive length, time seems to fly quickly past when I listen to "Wigmaker." Every song is different, every nuance feels natural, and you won’t check your watch once, not even at the two hour mark (which this soars past effortlessly). I personally recommend driving to this record, preferably on the highway where you can really open up the accelerator. Taken this way, it’s like listening to a cubist mixtape of glam, death metal and no wave, with each and every facet remorselessly visible. Keep the wheel with one hand, because you can pull air rockstar moves with the other all the way to state lines. Listening at home on headphones, the mix sounds completely different. The songs "come out" and greet you. Like the hooks in popular music, certain hooks here will come back to you as you go through your day. The snippet of surfish garage-rock in "Ideas Make Men Hard." The obliterated saxophone line in "Blandina, Oberwilding ’77." The call of "WIG MA-KEEERRRR!" in "Full Choke Wigmaker’s Vise." (Listen also for the computerized "WigMakKer" voice buried further in the mix. Much like old Firesign Theatre albums, I’ve heard this album many times, but that little sonic trinket just revealed itself today.) You can’t make 40 songs distinct and memorable, especially when they’re placed on one CD which is released months after a previous CD. But after seven years, it’s very possible to polish 27 gems to a blinding sheen.
In my heart of hearts, I hope "Wigmaker" acts as a wake-up call to the avant community. As Christgau said of Big Black’s final album, this acts as a final farewell even as it decimates all contenders. From a pure technical standpoint alone, the studio techs are going to be talking about (and maybe even studying in school) the mix on this album in 20 years – I have no doubt about that. If people have any ears to hear, they’ll have to absorb "Wigmaker" and realize that the bar has been raised significantly. The laissez-faire attitude towards pushing the sonic boundaries for the past 10 years is going to have to be called into question. It shouldn’t have been before, but now more than ever, it’s not enough just to play around with new technology, to gently process field recordings, to torture and kill pop culture referents like ants under a microscope, or to pay homage to those previously unheard recordings that first made us feel all tingly inside. This album reaches the finish line with the entrails of Tom’s favorite artists streaming from its lips like bad lipstick. There’s no admiration here…this is LOVE, baby!
From Blastitude (Review #2)
Seen that movie Event Horizon? It's like the 528th Alien imitation, and it even opens with the Star Wars special, one of the biggest cliches in the book: a long tracking shot of a huge spacecraft slowly moving through space. All the scary action/adventure stuff happens, and then for the 'climax,' you've got Larry Fishburne (the good guy) and Sam Neill (the bad guy) slogging it out in a pool of fake blood like they were on the third season of Starsky & Hutch. You might not make it that far -- I did, and I'll never get that time back -- but there is at least one cool part (cuz we all know every flick has at least ONE cool part). Y'see, Fishburne and crew are investigating an abandoned ghost ship they've encountered out there in space (see what I mean, it sounds just like Alien). It seems the ship was not so much invaded or anything as it was possessed, by no less than Pure Evil itself, and there's a couple fleeting scenes that depict what happened to the crew AS they were being possessed. And damn, it's kinda nightmarish -- no fooling, the memory of it is making my skin crawl right now. The scene is VERY fleeting, mind you, but what I recall is a sort of shape-shifting writhing-flesh backdrop of nude decadent humanity, and a man, standing in cataclysmic pain while -- I swear -- a huge rope of flesh streams from his mouth. All around can be heard the very echoing howls and roars of the eternally damned themselves.
Well, when To Live and Shave in L.A. are cranking on all cylinders, which seems to be all the time, and Rat Bastard's bass guitar noise and Ben Wolcott's oscillator noise are combining into one churning mind-dive frequency, and Tom Smith is delivering his dense archaic surrealistic librettos in a quasi-operatic 'free glam' tortured/
ecstatic he-man rant with a lyrical cadence that itself churns and repeats and goes and goes much like the noise and 'exteriors' the band generates...well, by golly, it all creates a sound that, for better or worse, depending on your mood, sounds a lot like, feels a lot like, or just plain is those fleeting scenes of horror in Event Horizon. Believe me, Shave music is a powerful scene.
But can you imagine if the whole movie had been made up of that scene? 97 minutes of non-stop streaming screaming ropes of flesh? Well, The Wigmaker in 18th Century Williamsburg really is non-stop streaming screaming ropes of flesh, and it has a running time of nearly 120 minutes. Are you down? When I put this on one recent Sunday afternoon and the maelstrom ensued, my wife quipped "What's this we're listening to? Hell?" Funny I mention "wife", as The Wigmaker has been labored over by Smith and Co. since 1995, and in that time, Smith went through a divorce. It wasn't easy, natch, something he's written about candidly in online essays and e-mail updates, hinting that Wigmaker had more or less become a concept album about -- or at least heavily informed by -- these difficult events. It's no wonder my wife was a little taken aback; in those sounds churning out of the speakers, she was hearing for real a message she had heard before in a thousand pop songs for fake: "good lovin' gone bad." The Wigmaker gives an idea what it might really feel like.
There's another reason for the hellishness of this sound, as anyone familiar with the Smith aesthetic and his manifesto-peppering career knows: he wants to be the baddest ass on the block. His essays dis everyone, from obvious targets like the Strokes and mellow rockin' Roy Montgomery to supposed badasses like Borbetomagus and Merzbow and The Dead C. He promises that the Shave will make a music that 'explodes beyond fatigued extremes.' Of course nary a single Tortoise fan will like this music, but when it comes to 'underground rock' or whatever the hell, Tom Smith will be "the better man." He is, quite simply, not to be outdone.
I hereby declare that Tom Smith and the Shave have NOT been outdone. The sprawling hellish vastness of the 116-minute Wigmaker project is more than enough testament, even in a world where we've already got Norwegian black metal and every Jim, Don, and Donald is said to make the heaviest music of all time and even shit like onstage self-mutilation is over 30 years old. It's harder than ever to be hard...
and, usually, harder than ever to listen to the results. The Shave's response is to completely demolish the form of all previous attempts within the first 2 to 15 seconds of every single one of all 27 cuts. No wave, metal, skree: napalmed, carpet bombed, blasted immediately. Dark ambient? Snuffed out like a candle the moment CD one starts. Cock ESP do it, but they stop just minutes or even seconds after that immediate blast cuz their amps unplug and fall over. Wigmaker stays plugged in and wails for another two hours. Are you down?
One of the first things they nuke is the rhythm. You'll know what I mean if you hear it; the rhythms are submerged into six years' worth of 'exteriors' (that is: samples, from records, practice tapes, other places). It honestly took me the fourth, maybe fifth listen to "Bled into Minar Thirty-Aught" to even discern Nandor Nevai's percussion, and when I finally noticed it I realized it was a fucking big-rock backbeat that I'll never not hear again. Now the track practically sounds like classic punk rock. I can even hear Rat's bass guitar distinctly at times...believe it or not, a first! I'm decrypting the mix, and in this new light, the track previous, "Nor Swollen-Bellied Comet Blown," is starting to sound like the obvious lead-off single, thanks to Mr. Velocity Hopkins contributing a very bad-ass metal guitar riff (complete with a whammy-bar motif), the rock around which the song rushes. (And, just to prove I've been getting the hooks on disc two also, how about the sample of an unknown punk-girl belting out a soulful song that drives "Song of Roland a Single Corkscrew Girl"?!)
Yes, these are hooks, yes, these are songs, but with the next two tracks, "Full-Choke Wigmaker's Vise" and "New Poem Dramatized For Lux Cudgel," both 6 or 7 minute mini-epics, the rhythms become more and more submerged. The truest rhythms come from the very non-metronomic hyperspeed tape-edits. Smith's voice comes from all sides and levels of the spectrum, doubling, dismantling, constantly cloning his 11-page libretto (included -- good luck trying to follow along while you listen). Track eight is eight minutes long -- and there's still twenty more minutes and five more tracks. And then comes disc two, just as long as the first! I'll admit it right now: I do not have the stamina. My listening patience was trained by the average length of the vinyl LP, and what with Shave's ability to compress, say, 30 minutes of music into about 3 seconds, a three minute jam by them is like 1800 minutes of anything else.
I should point out that I've never seen Shave live, and now that the band is defunct I never will. They played a legendary show in Chicago, at the 6ODUM venue, in 1999. I lived in Nebraska at the time and didn't make the trip, but I watched a Real Player movie of the performance at supersphere.com
. My lame-ass system/dial-up connection simply couldn't hang with the visuals; I could kinda tell what the band was wearing and stuff, but as far as following the actual performance action, I felt like I was watching La Jetee. The music, however, was an effing revelation; ferocious, kinetic, and electrified, it knocked the socks off of whatever recorded Shave I had previously heard. Clearly, seeing this band live is the skeleton key that opens up to a true appreciation of the what the fuck is going on in the recordings.
"Fills Mouth and Cunt with 'Pathetic Route'" starts with a dusty groove sample! Your crackling vinyl fetish is allayed. There's an incredible sample at the end of the song too, of a stately piano intro to a hard-driving sub-Beatles Brit-inflected bit of piano rock. Mr. Smith could make a great plunderphonics album. Audible Hiss already challenged Shave to record and mix their Interview With The Mitchell Brothers album in a single day; I offer a new challenge to Mr. Myth: an album (at least an EP) created completely solo, without any sound NOT plundered from a record. Or did he already do that, with the unheard (unreleased?) History of Duane Allman?
In between these brief bookends, it's once again full-on plunging shouting noise terror. Smith's vocals are relentless. Tom really is as effective an agent of performed doom-portent as the great European black metal singers. The difference is they sing less. Hell, their song intros will be a five/six minute instrumental, and the verses, when they eventually come, will only be 20 or 30 seconds, a place-holder in between frantic and/or epic blasts of blurring rhythms. Shave does the epic blur, but Smith's vocals keep right up with it for the entire 7 or 8 minutes many of these tracks run. With his phrase-stuffed 11-page libretto, the man's got a lot to portend.
Backing up Om's constant cadence, Bastard and Wolcott blare their instruments -- at first what they do can be incomprehensible, but eventually it can be heard as good old-fashioned punk improv, the frequencies fusing into a message of hi-energy full-on hardcore noise orgasm b/w scorched psychic warzone dreamscape. Surprisingly, this kind of punkish frequency-blend is the same goal that Borbetomagus has, and Om Myth HATES Borbetomagus. 'Tis true, the Shave's version is a tad more, shall we say, "white-hot"? Shave is intentionally too much, baby, their noise is to Borbeto's like getting puke-drunk on tequila poppers at a hellish nightclub with a pack of wild sluts compared to falling asleep alone, in your armchair, after three or four bourbons-on-the-rocks, a hard-bound book in your lap. I'll admit, I can picture myself in the latter scenario a little more often, but I'm a genteel sort of guy. After experiencing its initial blast, I assumed the Wigmaker would become a particularly intense but mostly hidden curio somewhere in my media den, tucked away in the same place I've got Kern's Hardcore Vol. 1, Pasolini's Saló, and (Christy) Canyon's Love In The Canyon. (Sorry, no Event Horizon.) That's what I assumed. But somehow, I find myself wanting to blast it every single day, especially now that I'm starting to hear the songs.