Sissy Spacek is the long-running sound project centred around John Wiese and Charlie Mumma, but encompassing a rotating set of other members. It is more or less a conceptual act: ostensibly a “grindcore band,” it is really a study what happens when you take the grind genre and then shoot tangents off in various directions, often groping towards the outer limits of harsh noise.
These two 2022 releases are unalike, but this is par for the course for the band. As Wiese tells me via email, “Sissy Spacek has always been a project that likes to expand the perimeter of its output—not just putting out the same release over and over, but really create a dynamic in the overall.” He cites the band’s 2016 triumvirate of releases as an example: they encompassed grindcore proper (Disfathom), short blasts of chaos in the noisecore tradition (Reversed Normalization), and a single 36-minute free improv jam performed as a sextet (Duration Groups).
2022’s release bolus extends the band’s theme of creating records that are internally coherent but radically different from one another. Of these two CDs, Reslayer is more divorced from grindcore, sonically. It takes the genre’s manic energy but reduces it to flailing noise rubble. Yet, unlike most noise releases (but like many grind records), it is a concise affair, divided into short, threeish-minute spurts. Wiese tells me this was by design. “When Sissy Spacek first started it was a mix of blur-grindcore and noise, and I had a fantasy that we would only release 7-inches. Highly compact, dense, and extreme.” (Indeed, several years ago Wiese commemorated his hundredth 7-inch!) For Reslayer, the band sought to channel this 45-rpm aesthetic into “tight 3 minute tracks that move quickly and intensely from one sound to another in an engaging way,” Wiese says. “In a sense they sound similar, but I would liken it to a Ramones album or something like that. One track after another with a continuing energy.”
Though rooted in grindcore, Reslayer retains no recognizable extreme metal instruments — guitars, bass, drums, death growl vocals are all replaced by rapidly changing bursts of inorganic noise. Wiese himself describes the methodology as “the shedding of musical instruments while retaining the same energy as grindcore,” something of a reaction against avant music’s tendency towards expansiveness. “Experimental music in general has a legacy of often bloated, long, and self indulgent material, and I think this is in a sense a counter to that.”
On Threshold, we hear a very different Sissy Spacek. Instead of short fragments of abstract noise, this record’s compositions stretch out, patiently exploring the continuum between white noise and grindcore. Jagged, tuneless, and joyfully dissonant, it’s a bit like Pig Destroyer recorded through a microphone inside a turned-on blender. Though comprising a coherent whole, the release contains three tracks from 2013-2014, and two from 2022. The holdovers include a piece previously included on cassette compilation called Stray Dog, a leftover piece performed live on radio for Damion Romero’s Psychotechnics program on L.A’s KXLU, and a track originally intended to be played as a four-channel installation. The two new 2022 recordings have a similar feel, but add the talents of Agoraphobic Nosebleed vocalist Jay Randall. I find myself dumbly puzzled when Wiese tells me what makes Threshold different from Reslayer, from his perspective: “I’d say that Reslayer is more of a singular vision of dynamics, whereas threshold is a dynamic vision of singularity.”
The cover of Threshold (generally speaking, Wiese, a design artist, handles the art for all Sissy Spacek releases) was something I was curious about. Framed in black is an image of what could be a patio at a luxury resort, a far cry from traditionally graphic grindcore imagery. Drawing a distinction between their intentions versus the prototypical noisecore/grind milieu of punky gumption, he notes that the photo helps “align the sound as something ‘high’ rather than something ‘low.'” He also points out its relationship to Merzbow/Masami Akita’s “Lowest Music and Arts” concept, and its connection to the artwork on Hijokaidan’s noise landmark, Windom:
Of these two discs, Threshold is the one I prefer, and I believe this is because it more overtly captures the fringe between grindcore and noise, two genres on the extreme which differ greatly in terms of structure. Wiese tells me that he sees Sissy Spacek as “in a sense the reverse of the mid-90s Relapse boom that got people from metal/grindcore into noise. Spacek is more like grindcore FROM noise, and [Threshold] would be a good example.”
Reslayer and Threshold are both available through Helicopter.
Constellation Records, the Montréal label indelibly associated with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor family tree, is still alive and well. GY!BE extended relatives like Fly Pan Am and Esmerine still comprise a portion of the imprint’s activity, but this is rounded out by the work of other artists, among them T. Gowdy, a sound producer/engineer and native Montréaler. For the record, The T. stands for Tim.
Gowdy’s name may not be household, but Miracles is a real treat. The basis for this album was an aborted multimedia project around the theme of video surveillance. Gowdy tells me that this project arose around 2016, in Berlin, where he was squatting in one of the recording studios in the Funkhaus – a cultural hub that developed out of an old building located in what used to be East Germany. “The walls still have wires and bugs everywhere,” he tells me. A friend suggested to him that he take analog audio equipment and connect it into video equipment, like old TVs and VCRs, via a video mixer. “The result was this kind of distortion to the image (even if there was no image, just blank) that became a fundamentally life changing moment for me. I went on to start performing audio visual sets using this technique. This is also known as glitch art, something I found out after a while.”
“Anyway, during this time in Berlin, I had some TVs but I had no source, like no video images. I wanted live video images.” He was also inspired by the unique hallways of the Funkhaus building, combined with its history of Soviet-era surveillance. “You’re floating on these massive floors filled with horsehair to combat mold. It feels like you are on a different plane, but just 30 years ago every move was being watched.”
In his travels, he happened upon the perfect resource: a building that was, as he puts it, “a graveyard for old video equipment in West Berlin.” There he picked up a few surveillance cameras, which he connected to his computer via long cables. The idea was to collect this surveillance footage – audio and video – which he could then use to create sound art in a collaged, musique concrete vein. “The video feed was definitely driving the feeling of the sound,” he reflects. “It was sparse and minimal, no beginning or end, kind of ominous, distorted.”
When he returned to Montréal in 2017, he continued to experiment with surveillance footage. Using a video mixer, he would have video footage playing in one channel of his video mixer; however, in the other video channel, he would instead run audio data, which would lead to a distortion of the final image. He sourced his surveillance footage himself, recording video from archetypally urban locations: an underpass, a subway station, the exterior of an office building.
He produced music as a soundtrack to these surveillance collages, which became the initial version of Miracles, though at the time he spelled it “Miraclz.” “These audiovisual pieces captured an essence of something,” he explains. “At this point I was becoming more and more obsessed with the current landscape of surveillance. How it used to be considered, 20 to 70 years ago, an ominous thing but now surveillance is functioning part of the way we relate to one another socially and economically. It’s the foundation of so many things. Algorithmically, watching, listening, packaging, selling, helping us to make our lives easier, connecting.” Some of this project can be seen in a 2018 performance he did for Montreal’s electronic festival, MUTEK:
After this, however, he shelved this project until 2021, when he stumbled upon it while he was experimenting with vactrols, an electronic component that is used in modular analogue synthesizers. This occurred at a time when he was spending time with his friend, visual artist Laura Buckley, who unfortunately passed away this year. They were experimenting with an old camcorder she owned. “We found some old tapes of her using the camera in like the nineties to record some guys building a theatre set,” he says. “There were sparks everywhere it looked really good on the LED screen monitor of the camcorder. This I think played a big part in my new experiments. I wanted to get closer to the sound of electricity and use it musically.”
Gowdy explains that vactrols are “basically frequency filters that open and close very quickly when they hear an impulse. They open and close very quickly because there is a light detector. The impulse can be from anything and when it strikes, the vactrol closes giving a very woody percussive sound. They can open and close so quickly that it sounds like electricity to my ears. Or more like the envelope and speed of electricity with the timbre of wood.”
To create the final Miracles, he took sound from his original Miraclz work and ran it through the vactrols, making them “into woody sparks,” as he puts it. The woodiness indeed comes through, for example in the clipped, thudding rhythms of “Vidisions”. The album also often has a digitally fuzzy sound, like a tenth-generation digital photocopy – a screenshot of a screenshot of a screenshot, ad infinitum. It’s an aesthetic not far from touchstone works like Alva Noto’s Xerrox series and, yes, William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (which is doomed to be perpetually invoked in these cases). Miracles’ main focus is its engrossing synthesized sound, but Gowdy explains there are traces of the audio from the surveillance footage buried within.
Miracles is not the only Gowdy work with a concept revolving around technology. His last album, Therapy With Colour, was based on an unusual device called a sound mind machine, a pseudoscientific apparatus that emits pulses of sound, purportedly to alter the listener’s brainwaves. This has been coopted by charlatans who have marketed them as everything from meditation aids to quick “home hypnosis” solutions for medical illnesses and underwhelming love lives. Though Gowdy doesn’t endorse any of these metaphysical properties, he does tell me that Therapy With Colour was inspired by a positive experience with a sound mind machine. “I discovered the mind machine at [singer/songwriter and Majical Cloudz frontman] Devon Welsh’s mother’s house in San Francisco, while I was on tour playing guitar for his solo project,” he says. “I just put on the headphones and started zoning. I found it to be a useful experience because it could, in a very primitive way, affect the direction of your thoughts. I had been looking for a way to disassociate myself from patterns in my life. The experiments with the sound mind machine showed me that I could disassociate from thought patters by subjecting myself to minute rhythmic shifts, dissolving perceptions. I wanted to direct an album with this in mind.”
One can see a connection between Therapy With Colour and Miracles, in that both records explore highly specific technologies using electronic music. Both are worthy of your attention: they are not excruciating conceptual exercises, but absorbing and compelling digital collages that tickle the brain.
In the future I would like to do a proper profile of Fusty Cunt, a label that has put out countless unusual releases housed in unique packaging concepts. But today I wanted to showcase a particularly unique tape put out by the label.
Compilations are fascinating, especially noise comps. The taxonomic frenzy of artist names, typically a combination of established artists, obscure side projects, and perplexing one-offs, can lead to hours of Discogs scrolling, following byzantine networks of loose associations.
But I digress. The most fascinating of the comps are the themed compilations, and this Fusty Cunt nugget is no exception. Even more fascinating is the rare breed of compilations that come housed in actual diapers. I know of only one.
“Anhedonia” refers to the inability to experience pleasure. Clinically, it is a symptom of depression as well as several other psychiatric and neurological conditions. According to an excellent interview with Fusty Cunt proprietor Jim Haras for Pure Stench zine, Anhedonia was a compilation in which artists were asked to create brief (under two minute) tracks using the concept of “denial of self gratification.” Artists were hand-selected by Haras, “chosen because each has a unique sound and I knew each would generate a different spin on the concept (social denial, monetary denial, sexual denial, intellectual denial, political denial, bowel denial, etc.)”
Featured on the tape are mid-tier noise acts like Ahlzagailzehguh, Baculum, and Custodian, plus some rarer names. There is also Exploring Jezebel, one of the many pseudonyms of Dominick Fernow (Prurient, Hospital Productions) as well as Haras’ own act, Deterge. Track titles include some real treats, like “Dutifully Overdosing On Female Footsweat,” “Holding In Your Poopy,” and “Kegel Exercises: Flex And Release.” One artist even poses a pithy question: “Did You Ever Want Something So Much That You Would Do Anything To Have It, Only To Be Told It Could Never Be Yours?”
Even the short track duration was an attempt at stymying gratification — “just as you are about to fully get into a track, it’s over, leaving you wanting more.” The release came with a booklet of artwork, each contributing artist submitting a page. But the piece de resistance was the fact that each copy came in a bona fide diaper, with “ANHEDONIA” written on it in upper-case letters with a Sharpie.
To Fusty Cunt’s owner, the diaper was a middle finger to tape collectors, “an attack on everyone’s personal record/tape collection.” Inside the nappy was a tape shell spray-painted feces brown. He originally had planned to use brown tapes, for maximum effect, but could not source them. In the end, that was perhaps for the best: “This denied me the satisfaction of having it turn out exactly the way I intended.”
Do you know of other tapes that come packaged in diapers? If so, please leave a comment or let me know.
Hi everyone. Things have been a little quiet lately at Anomaly Index. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the key factors is that I’ve been preparing my very own book for publication. If you like the deep examinations of obscure and unusual music featured in Anomaly Index, then you are quite likely to enjoy Extreme Music, which just came out through Feral House:
This book is an examination of various different extreme conceptual themes within fringe music. As just a taster of many, there are chapters on topics like Harsh Noise Wall, extremely fast music (including music with BPMs over 1000), found music, extremely long compositions, and anti-records. Each chapter includes original research and interviews with artists. The focus is on the stories behind different strange musical artifacts, and the ideas that propel them. I conducted over 100 interviews to assemble this book. That includes interviews with people/acts like Romain Perrot (Vomir), John Olson, and Bull of Heaven, to name just a few. The book is designed to be interesting and readable, as opposed to dense and academic.
I will say: This book is exhaustive! To give you a sense, here is just page one of the three-page table of contents:
Anyhow, this is one thing that has been keeping me busy lately. If you’re interested in the strange, poorly-documented fringes of music, then I do suspect you will enjoy this book. Thank you for allowing this bit of self-promotional indulgence; more Anomaly Index posts are coming soon!
An outstanding debut from a new name, the abstract electronic album Ten Minutes to Midnight is billed in its brief press release as “a masterwork of subtraction.” There wasn’t much else context for this description, so I tried to go straight to the source.
You won’t find much information about who Canva6 is through a Google search; I had to email the label, Presto!? Records, who patched me through to the man himself. It turns out Canva6 is the sound project of Marco Farina, a 27-year-old from Rome who moved to Milan to study sound engineering but stayed after becoming enamoured with the city’s cultural scene. Music production is a priority for him. “When I don’t make music I try to find some ‘fast-jobs,’” he explains. “It’s not something stable, but it’s enough to pay bills, take bae out for dinner, and buy instruments. There are some people who say that I should get a normal, stabler job, but this modality is the only one that can make the creation of music possible. Making music can be a slow process sometimes, I need a lot of time.”
Farina recalls being nine or ten years old when he discovered his friend’s brother’s copy of FL Studio, a computer program used to produce electronic music. He and his friend used this software to create his first-ever “techno track” at which point he became hooked. It was in his early twenties that he discovered experimental music, which was liberating; he was no longer restricted to the conventions of dance music. “When you do experimental music, you are free, there are no rules, it’s just to create something that sounds good to my ears,” he tells me.
He explains that his record is billed as a “masterwork of subtraction” because it is the product of a process of decluttering his music. (Though I get the sense this turn of phrase was the work of his label, not him.) “I started to feel this need for precision in my work when I started to subtract elements,” he explains. “Before this practice, the message that I wanted was not clear… It was messy, it wasn’t clear where the tracks were going, so I said ‘OK, let’s stop going around it, let’s get to the point.’”
Conceptually, Ten Minutes is one of a growing line of pandemic records, what Farina calls “something a bit tragic.” He recounts crafting this album in the early days of lockdown while Italy was getting hit exceptionally hard. At the time, he travelled to his girlfriend’s place with just a laptop and keyboard. While stuck indoors, he developed a strict routine: he would go to bed early, wake up at 6 am, then sit down to produce tracks on his computer and take piano lessons online until roughly noon. (His girlfriend, a night owl, would join him later in the day.) After the first lockdown wound down, he took the resulting tracks back to his home studio to test them on a proper sound system but found the work “really bad” when subject to scrutiny. He diagnosed the problem as the fact that the record was produced using computer software alone; after saving up some cash, he was eventually able to purchase some used audio equipment, then used this to produce a superior product. What brought Ten Minutes to its final synthesis was Lorenzo Senni, the founder of Presto!? Records and an electronic producer who Farina considers an inspiration. Farina had been accepted to the label after submitting a demo, with the proviso that it required a lot of work – with Senni’s guidance, the final Canva6 record emerged, and was came out on the label.
A record forged during the early days of the pandemic, Ten Minutes is, according to Farina, a combination of memory and futility. “I rewound a lot of my life and my experiences. This caused an intense need to escape… but where? I didn’t know what was outside those days!” Take, for example, “Still Cry at High Speed,” a track which is built upon a massive chord progression played using the “chorus” feature on a Roland Juno 60, an analog synthesizer produced between 1982 to 1984. (Farina explains that this synth produces “a huge spreading sound like a hug from your father when you’re a very tiny child,” before apologizing for the simile.) This sound was augmented by superimposed sounds concocted experimentally in a computer program called Massive, reflecting Ten Minutes’ amalgam of analog and digital methodology.
“Still Cry at High Speed,” like many of the tracks on this record, is both pretty and momentous, yet interestingly Farina describes it as the product of a sense of restlessness. Reflecting on the lockdown period in which this track was composed, he explains the track’s inspiration: “In a static time, I want to run, I want to drive fast, I want to be on a rollercoaster, I want to feel the fear when it’s taking me up, but when it’s taking me down I would cry for that feeling of speed, I still cry with that. It’s what I needed at the time… and of course every day of my life.”
Ten Minutes’ artwork is a photograph taken by Lorenzo Senni, the Presto!? Records owner. It is a photograph of a popular Milan palace in San Bibila; pictured is a clock at, you guessed it, ten minutes to midnight. Though it’s nighttime, there is a brightly lit banner depicting a sunset above an ocean, part of an advertisement out front of the palace. Farina was drawn to the juxtaposition between the dimly lit city and the bright sunset, comparing it to Blade Runner. “When I saw it I just said, ‘OK, let’s use this please. I don’t want to see the others.’ I think it was identical to my feelings in those days stuck at home.”
Lurking in the depths of streaming music services is this strange record, named Hurt, by the oddly named Peristalsis Intestines. (Grammatically speaking, it’s also an odd one — “Intestinal Peristalsis” would have had made more sense.)
It’s a low-key and not unpleasant album’s worth of brief, electronic instruments set to a hip-hop beat. Each track is around two minutes in length, and most combine a stereotyped beat to a restricted set of synthesizer timbres.
The entire record can be found on most streaming sites, including Soundcloud:
There is no information about the origin of this album online. The only webpages associated with it are places to buy or stream it (e.g. Spotify, Amazon Unlimited, KKBOX). The artwork appears to be a from-above photograph of a woman digitally modified to look like a painting:
I was wondering if this was a stock image; a Google image search reveals no such leads, as the only instances of this image appearing online are linked to Peristalsis Intestines. It is possible that it is a stock image that has been modified in Photoshop to take on its current, painting-esque form.
The song titles, like the artist name, seem to be the product of a random word generator: “Blaxploitation,” “Confesses Criticize Adopt,” “Varsity Service Break,” “Myself Advancement,” “Inlcusive.” With that said, certain titles give off a vague Aphex Twin vibe: “Brush Wash-off Eddies,” “Acotyledon Ironworks.”
It is possible this is streaming music spam — an album created and given an unusual name to attract errant streams, and therefore accumulate gradual royalty payments. But the fact that it has only accumulated one monthly visitor on Spotify suggests that, if so, this strategy isn’t working too well. I do wonder if this album exists, in identical form, with different artist, album, and song titles. (There have been instances of other Spotify spammers who submit identical records under multiple different names as a way of slowly absorbing royalties from curious streamers searching random keywords).
Interestingly, when this album concludes in Spotify, the next track the algorithm queues up for me is from another bizarre, faceless album, COHANDE by SUNCOTK:
I have sent a message to the Peristalsis Intestines Soundcloud account, but have not yet heard back. I will update this if I do.
Do you know anything about this strange record? Are you Peristalsis Intestines? Are you a better internet sleuther than I am? If so, please get in touch so we can solve this mystery!
Superpang, a record label named after an obscure Super Nintendo game, is all about exploring strange musical concepts. Famous for their distinctive, text-only covers, this Rome-based netlabel has produced a sprawling discography since their 2020 debut, Guy Birkin’s Liminal Kicks. That unique record was a collection of algorithmically produced club tracks driven by supraphysiological tempos that shifted in exponents according to the Golden ratio, reaching a ceiling of 300,000 beats per minute!
Phantom Acid is yet another experiment from the Superpang clan. Twenty-four tracks, each one precisely 90 seconds in length, make up this unusual disc – which is described, in its press release, as post-human. In truth, this is the work of two producers, each with their own aesthetic, and each armed with their own digital tools.
Eric Frye is known for his audio experiments with the human voice. For example: Obfuscation Morphologies, an album in which he used software to alter recordings of speech, stripping them of their actual words. Deprived of verbal content, the voices became vague and unnerving utterances divorced of identity and context. In an interview with The Wire, he described this as a comment on privacy in the digital age. He sees his musical use of the voice-stripping software as a way of subverting the typical use case for these computer programs, which he believes are destined to be co-opted by big companies to nefarious ends. “I feel like I’ll find something like this voice obscuring process and I’ll be so happy to use it to see what it does,” he explained then. “These processes have a lot of power, and they should actively be shared with artists and musicians, people who are a wider audience in general. It shouldn’t just be relegated to a corporate structure, that’s going to take this and implement it into a smartphone or something, and have back doors to it or whatever.” In their corresponding notes, Frye’s productions will credit the programmers responsible for creating this software, and reference articles from linguistics journals – clearly, his sonic output goes hand in hand with the highly technical process he makes use of.
On Phantom Acid, Frye’s voice manipulations are fifty percent of the equation. The other half is the work of Jung An Tagen (born Stefan Juster), who turns the deconstructed phonemes into loops and converts them into strange approximations of rave music. Tagen, a veteran producer who has explored many different avenues of sound, lately has been focused on computer music – borrowing processes from ‘academic’ music and using them produce strange deconstructions of electronic dance music.
The ideas behind Phantom Acid make reference to other sound work. Psychologist Diana Deutsch used to run experiments where she would play looped recordings of single words to study participants, offsetting the left and right speaker channels. Eventually, the subjects would hear “phantom words” in the din: new words, made up words, words in foreign accents, etc. The same effect is embedded in Phantom Acid, both the work and title. But Phantom Acid’s most proximal connection is to their labelmates, EVOL, a hyperproductive duo who have concocted a whole host of sonic experiments and who claim to create “computer music for hooligans.” One of EVOL’s recurrent projects has been their spoofs on rave music, dubbed “rave synthesis,” in which they use computers to take sonic signatures of dance music and turn them on their head. To wit: their 100 Variations For Solo Hoover, which took a synthesized sound that was a mainstay of 90s rave music (the custom synth tone known as the “Hoover sound,” in reference to its auditory resemblance to a vacuum) and dissected it stochastically into one hundred separate compositions. (It was released in an edition of 100 CD-Rs, each copy containing one of the different variations such that no two were identical). You can imagine what their 2009 cassette, Fart Synthesis, was all about.
Listening to Phantom Acid is a jarring experience – the fragmentary tracks are punctuated by blebs of white noise, resisting the tendency toward passive engagement that often occurs with electronic music. Even the simplest tracks – e.g. a simple phoneme, looped – are undeniably rhythmic. Jung/Frye’s experiments reach their most sublime when the complexity is upscaled, quasi-melodies and basslines appearing amid the bedlam. Whether it is something to enjoy on a primal level, or merely to be appreciated on an intellectual one, is up for debate.
First of all, I want to apologize for how quiet Anomaly Index has been over the past while. I have been hard at work on an upcoming very big project: a book, about extreme and obscure music, which will be due out in November of this year. I will post more about that later.
Today I focus on an obscure CD-R label that ran from 2000 to 2008, responsible for some truly strange relics in the noise and dark ambient space. That label was Alarming Echo Beats:
The origins of AEB are a little opaque, but information can be gleaned from the archive of its website on archive.org, which includes a link to a brief interview with the founder, who is known as The Rev, which is short for the Reverend Samekh Anubis Amoun-Ra.
Prior to running AEB, The Rev was a teenager fascinated with the noisecore / shitcore / shitnoise scene: a grindcore-adjacent scene devoted to ultra-short blasts of noise. Canonical bands in these scene include Anal Cunt, Deche-Charge, and Seven Minutes of Nausea, the latter known for releases like a seven-inch record with 293 tracks on one side.
The Rev started putting out tapes under the name Fecel-Cide, a “semi-political noise band” whose primary orientation appears to have been anti-authority. Very little Fecel-Cide content remains easily available today, but here’s a brief track from the Audio Terrorism tape compilation:
In 1991 The Rev started his first label, Fecal-Matter Discorporated, an imprint and distro dedicated to unleashing tapes and CD-Rs by Fecel-Cide and other artists who fit under the rubric of “harsh sick sexual deviant style noise.” His first tape was a split cassette between the band Flush (a one-off Rev project) and Palagi (another one-off of unclear provenance), its cover a crass and grainy Xerox job like many of the era:
This first incarnation of Fecal-Matter Discorporated lasted until 1994, releasing 21 cassettes including two compilations named Bored-Core which remain incredibly obscure at this point:
Fecal-Matter Discorporated then lay dormant for six years, re-emerging in 2001 with more colourful imagery, striking out with the album Suitcase Of Mutilated Entrapment by the Japanese grindcore band Basket of Death. It is at this point that the aesthetic becomes less crass and more graphic. The label’s website, which has been preserved in archive form, is lacquered with images of extreme porn, mainly of the coprophagic variety, and there are very few releases whose cover art I could reproduce here without violating my agreement with my hosting service. The front page of the label’s website lists two slogans: “Cum see the shit we have for you!!” and “Where we force the shit in your face,” which should give you a flavour for the aesthetic. Bands with names like Complete Rectal Shutdown, Imbibing Bile, and Anal Gorecum Pissflap Slap are featured. Here is the charming cover to one of the label’s compilations, Now That’s What I Call Shit!:
Alarming Echo Beats, the much less puerile sister label to Fecal-Matter Discorporated, was started in 2000 to release music under The Rev’s new project, Absynth (To His Macabre Angel), a more subdued approach inspired by the occultist Aleister Crowley. His first release was the album Twilight Mind, by The DSA Working, the side project of prog-rock band Yeti’s bassist, Tommy Atkins.
The Alarming Echo Beats focus was on “occult and magick type genres of musick,” and the discography is a bizarre one. An especially peculiar release is the 2003 compilation He Came to Set the Captives Free, a concept release based around a controversial 1986 Christian book of the same name. That book was published by Dr. Rebecca Brown, and was billed as an exposé of an underground Satanic cult network. In it, Dr. Brown tells the story of her roommate, Elaine, who was recruited as a child to a Satanic cult called “The Brotherhood,” only to eventually ascend to the rank of high priestess. Dr. Brown, while starting her career as a doctor, rescues Elaine and sets up an “underground railroad” for escapees from the cult. According to reporting, in reality, Dr. Brown — whose real name was Dr. Ruth Bailey — had lost her license for misdiagnosing patients with actual diseases as having demonic possession and treating her patient, Edna Elaine Moses (the “Elaine” from her book), with massive quantities of opioids and sedatives, such that she had to undergo inpatient detoxification for withdrawal. She had also been self-administering opioids to herself regularly. From an Indianapolis News article:
“Testimony for 19 witnesses revealed that Dr. Bailey, a former registered nurse, began an impressive medical career in 1979 after excelling in medical school. Over the last three years she deteriorated into a woman plagued by drug addiction, religious extremism and a belief that patients and colleagues were possessed by devils, witnesses said. Several witnesses declined to reveal their current addresses saying they feared retaliation from Dr. Bailey. The physician carries a handgun and has threatened to harm people she claims are possessed, they said. ‘Her diagnosis was that I was possessed by many demons, including one like an octopus with long tentacles…’”
Despite this, Dr. Brown’s book has found a niche in the evangelical Christian universe. Alarming Echo Beats’ compilation includes music by several experimental artists, most notably plunderphonics act The Bran Flakes and DJ Spooky collaborator Totemplow, overlaid with excerpts of an audiotape version of the controversial Christian book.
Even more bizarre is the album Necro Audio Forensics: 13 Stairs Palo, Iowa, which bills itself as a series of recordings of EVP, or the electronic voice phenomenon: a belief that disembodied voices can be heard amid the buzz and hum of electrical interference. (There is a key compilation on the Touch label, named The Ghost Orchid, which collects EVP recordings).
According to the label copy, Necro Audio Forensics was created from tapes that were recorded at the supposedly haunted Pleasant Ridge cemetery just north of Palo, Iowa, which is nicknamed “13 Stairs” due to the distinctive staircase leading up to its hilltop locale. According to local lore, this cemetery is a prime location for supernatural phenomena: it is supposedly a hotbed of ghoulish EVP voices, and is also home to a red-eyed ghost dog that materializes occasionally.
The Necro Audio Forensics CD-R is attributed to Ichabod Crane, the alter ego of Kristian Day, who now is a successful film and TV producer who has also composed scores for horror films. The CD-R features recordings made at the cemetery, purportedly of EVP, augmented with samplers and sequencers to create the creepy final product.
Day, who corresponded with me briefly via email, explains that he was sixteen when he created Necro Audio Forensics. He is now 35. “Palo is probably the first haunted space I have encountered,” he tells me. “I remember taking the tape recorder out there and it kept stopping. When I finally got it home the sounds were not super audible but there was definitely something there.”
The rest of Alarming Echo Beats’ respectably sprawling discography spans drone, extreme metal, and power electronics. There is a split release (Cththonic Cat Cult, AEB-022) dedicated to an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which a cat killer is eaten by a swarm of felines. By 2007, the label’s discography becomes even more fringe: Qlippothic Kommandos was a bizarre compilation dedicated to the theme of “Satanic psyops,” featuring a number of controversial contributors.
The exact origins of the person behind Alarming Echo Beats — The Rev, as it were — are quite obscure, seemingly deliberately so. I found numerous email addresses associated with The Rev and his various projects, but multiple queries sent to all of them yielded no response. Based on some sleuthing involving caches of the websites for Alarming Echo Beats and the Absynth music project, I suspect that the person responsible is from Texas and is named Sean; at one point he appears to have been an avid collector of Godzilla memorabilia. (The power of the internet, right?) Digging deep online, there is also a possible association with a briefly-existent racist CD-R label, which I will not name here, but I cannot confirm overlap in the absence of concrete evidence. I will also note that the He Came To Set The Captives Free compilation and one other AEB release also seem to have been reissued by another label (not the racist one named above), which also released two albums by groups associated with racist themes.
At any rate, around 2008 the trail goes dead. Copies of AEB releases appear to be exquisitely scant, with only a small handful available on the secondary marketplace, and digital uploads also seem to be absent. One wonders how many of each release were produced, and whether a full archive exists somewhere.
As a whole, Alarming Echo Beats is emblematic of the many productive but briefly active experimental music CD-R labels that existed in the 2000s. By and large, this body of music remains under-documented and under-collected, with incomplete Discogs listings representing the best quality information about many of these small labels. Many mysteries remain, but as time passes, the details fade further and further into obscurity…
Do you know more about the Alarming Echo Beats story? If so, please leave a comment or get in touch! I’d love to fill out this story.
If you were alive, conscious, and capable of absorbing pop culture in 1996 and 1997, you will probably recognize “Nightmare” by Brainbug, if not by name then by sound:
A worldwide dance hit, this single spawned a momentary obsession with synthesized pizzicato strings. It was a mainstay at sporting events, and turned up on the soundtrack to major feature films. It plays in the background of a scene in Night at the Roxbury as the two main characters, surrounded by floral bouquets, argue until they come to blows.
Despite the cultural ubiquity of this track, Brainbug’s identity remained somewhat opaque. Behind the moniker was Alberto Bertapelle, an Italian producer who recorded one-off releases under a variety of different names. Although there is an incomplete list on Discogs, his full oeuvre remains uncatalogued to this day; sadly, he died in 2016 during a live performance with Abbalive, an ABBA tribute group that co-founded, and for which he played guitar — a strangely non-digital footnote to his musical career.
Dance music is notorious for its complex nomenclature and its interconnectedness. Poring over what we know of Alberto Bertepelle’s full discography, the interesting aspects are in the details: lists of faceless pseudonyms, poorly-documented collaborations with other Italian names, releases on various record labels, sub-labels, sub-sub-labels.
1996’s “Nightmare” was the first single under the name Brainbug, a track that has gone on to define a certain strain of trance music that used synthesized strings instruments and other orchestral sounds. (Indeed, the most popular permutation of “Nightmare” was its “Sinister Strings Mix,” one of countless whimsically titled remixes, tweaks, and alternate versions that appeared: the “M.D.L.P. More Pumping Mix,” the “Burger Queens Remix,” the “Club 69 Meets DJ Wild From Paris Remix,” etcetera.) Buoyed by his international success, he followed “Nightmare” up with several tracks in a similar mold, likely aspiring to cash in on the public’s appetite for dark, symphonic trance and pizzicato strings.
“Benedictus” came out the following year. It uses choral vocals sourced from an aria and all manner of orchestral hits and strings, but ups the ante with an even more cavernous sound than “Nightmare.” In comments sections on YouTube, some Brainbug enthusiasts have argued that this is a superior track to its predecessor, though its chart performance was significantly weaker Whereas “Nightmare” rose to #15 on the UK singles chart, “Benedictus” only reached #25. The disparity was greater in other European countries.
Meanwhile, a follow-up that came out the same year, “The 8th Dwarf,” was a chart bomb. It featured a similar formula, but is centred around a minor-key violin melody that is more melancholy than foreboding, sort of like an Eastern-European folk song:
Bertapelle released his last Brainbug track, “Rain,” in 1998. On it, he combines his favoured pizzicato strings with the honey-dipped vocals of fellow Italian Nadia Casari, a one-off singer whose social media presence continues, to this day, to reference her association with this track. This song seems to have been ignored in Europe, but ended up faring well on US dance music charts. While “Benedictus” is Brainbug’s most powerful track, this one is a perfect marriage of “Nightmare” gloom and sterling pop.
Bertapelle trotted out the Brainbug moniker for a handful of remixes of other artists’ tracks, but after 1998, there were no further originals. In 2004, “Nightmare” grazed the charts again following an opportunistic re-release.
Though the Brainbug story commands the marquee, the most intriguing aspect of Bertepelle’s career is his labyrinth of pseudonyms. His first production credits date way back to 1994, two years before “Nightmare” came out. At that time, he was producing and mixing music under the name Dr. Albert and running a productive recording set-up known as Dr. Albert’s Studio. His fingerprints are on a number of songs from that era, all within the Italodance template: four-to-the-four beats, exuberant synths, vocals upfront. Under the monikers B.B.W., Whykiki, S.L.A.M., and L.A. Woman, he produced a number of would-be hits, many on a label called Great Dance, whose logo was a silhouette of a Great Dane. The standout is “Hold Out” by L.A. Woman, with its infectious diva chorus and euro-dance keys:
It is hard to know how successful these songs were in Italy and abroad. Many tracks were licensed to dance music compilations, and today they seem to be hot collectibles, selling for over $100 per disc. Scant descriptive information exists about the Great Dance label at this time, although a producer named Bruno Rosallini is credited as the executive producer on many releases put out by the label.
In 1996, the year of “Nightmare,” Bertapelle’s musical direction shifts radically. Gone are the exuberant, radio-friendly sounds of his various Italodance productions. Instead there is a network of dark, even minimal singles, a number of which came out on sublabels of the Italian label, Dancework. Mammut, a sub-imprint dedicated to techno and progressive house/trance, put out his “Space” single, released under the name Space Christ. Emblematic of his sound at the time, it’s a low-key and subtle track, without a major melodic hook:
Mammut also released a hard trance single by Bertapelle under the name Evil Trax, which features two mixes each of the cuts “Evil Trax” and “Thrasher.” Darker than his Brainbug work, and vastly less melodic, this single leads with the “Bould Mix” of “Evil Trax,” which is its strongest selection:
Another Dancework single, out on the sublabel Joop, is a progressive trance single that was released as a transparent pink 10″ record without a centre label. This one includes two versions of a track called “Lift Up,” and is credited to the name Drumscape. Both are fairly typical progressive trance from the era, the “Sun Version” marginally more appealing than the “Maestro Version.”
“Humdrum” by Humdrum, a faceless 12″ on Mammut, is another typical Bertapelle record of the time — oddly minimal and generic. Scant mentions of this disc appear online, although one record dealer has put up a couple clips of it on YouTube:
Part of the single was also included on a live compilation from the era:
Some of Bertapelle’s music takes inspiration from acid house. Under the bizarre name Corn on the Cob, he released a lone single, “Anorexia,” which is reaveled to be a raging techno track punched through with glorious acid synths. It is one of his finest records of this era:
And spinning more nomenclature off from the DSM, Bertapelle is listed as the person behind the name Alzheimer, responsible for a lone single, “Ictus,” in 1996. This one, a trance track with a good dose of acid, came out on the prolific Italian label PRG. The official credit on the record is listed as “Notator,” which seems to have been a Bertapelle alter-ego.
In 1998, two years after the worldwide success brought by “Nightmare,” the Bertapelle trail inexplicably goes dead. After two years spent releasing a flurry of singles under several different names — and doing a whole bunch of production work — his credits dry up entirely. It’s the strangest thing.
The only exception is a non-descript 2003 single released in Bertapelle’s typically esoteric style. “Zulu” is the only track credited under the name Deep Deed. The only current record of it online is a Discogs listing, which includes a tantalizing generic centre label:
Spending a good hour wading through the archived versions of the website for Clubbin’ Records, which was a label run by dance producer/mogul Joe T. Vannelli, I was able to track down a listing for this record, but it offers no real additional info, except that the correct nomenclature is “Deepdeed”:
It is amazing to me that labels like Clubbin released enormous catalogues of singles (“Zulu” is number 55 on Clubbin’!) only to disappear nearly entirely just a few years later, a testament to the sprawling (and poorly archived) nature of dance music of this era. Trying to gain some clarity on this anomalous Bertapelle artifact, I emailed Vannelli asking for details, but came back empty-handed.
After Deepdeed, we get nothing further from Bertapelle. He produced, in short order, a large body of dance music in various styles, culminating in international success — then disappeared a few years later, only bobbing up once for one mysterious comeback record before sinking into the depths again.
According to a translated biography, at some point Bertapelle started up a sound engineering school called the Help Music Academy. In 2006, he founded Abbashow, a touring Abba reunion group that seems to have been his main source of income from then on. He played guitar in that group and some other revival spin-offs, but there is no record of him being involved in dance music after the Deepdeed single.
Desperate for any flake of information, I tracked down and contacted Nadia Casari, who provided the vocals for Brainbug’s “Rain” single. She explains that she first came into contact with Bertapelle in 1997. “My cousin told me that a top dance music producer was looking for a singer,” she recalls. “In that period I didn’t like ‘dance’ Music at all, so, I told my cousin, ‘I’m not interested.’ But he persuaded me as he thought it was a great idea… Together we went to Alberto’s recording studio and I did a sort of audition. After about a week, he called me back to record ‘Rain.’
“During the creation of ‘Rain,’ the first thing that we did was to understand which notes I was able to reach, which were the best… We tried different melodies, he wrote the words and finally he made the arrangement.”
In 1998, he told her that ‘Rain’ would be released with her voice on it — which was apparently a challenge because the label, EMI, had wanted a singer for whom English was the mother tongue. “Our press release for the new track claimed that Alberto was standing on the Bridge of Sighs when he heard a beautiful voice,” she explains. “Upon looking down to the water, he saw a beautiful woman singing in a gondola. Alberto was overcome with excitement and yelled, in true Italian fashion, a greeting and proposed rendezvous. Our record company romanticized the whole thing.”
In reality, it was through an audition that Casari was selected, though Bertapelle reportedly said in multiple interviews that he was uniquely struck by her “soft and mysterious voice.” Craving a sense of sadness in the sound, he would reportedly urge her to tone down the cheerfulness of her singing while they recorded. “He used to tell me, ‘Nadia don’t be so happy, please! You need to be sad, if you’re not able to do it I can help you, I could stamp your feet!'”
She remembers working with Bertapelle fondly. “We used to laugh a lot during our sessions in studio. He was very patient with me and he taught me a lot of things. Working with him was so incredible. It was the best period of my life. In those years we tourned in U.S.A. (New York, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago) U.K. Germany and Australia (Brisbane, Adelaide and Sidney).”
There are a few other Bertapelle-Casari collaborations. She added some vocals to the Brainbug remix of Age of Love’s legendary “Age of Love.” You can hear her ethereal backing tracks near the end of the single here:
Even more noteworthy, she mentions that a Brainbug LP was in the works, and that they recorded 3-4 more tracks for it – but the whole thing was never released! Somewhere out there, this body of unreleased Brainbug material may be sitting on a shelf. (Casari tells me she does not know what happened to them.)
After 2001, Casari moved to Rome and fell out of touch with Bertapelle — she went on to do some recordings at Italian recording studios, including a single called “Mystic Joy.” She can’t tell me anything more about his recording career.
Perhaps his story isn’t unique. Dance producers commonly accumulate lengthy discographies of singles, though few of them enjoy the success that “Nightmare” earned Bertapelle. Even the Discogs hivemind can’t measure up to the sheer mass of electronic music that was produced in the 90s and 00s: though many records are catalogued, the hypercomplex webs that connect them are incompletely documented, many details perhaps lost forever. Back then, records were cheap to produce, and the market favoured the release of scads of discs to a ravenous audience of DJs and clubgoers. The history remains largely unsorted.
And though Discogs is an attempt to compile the records and their metadata, even more obscure are the stories behind the music. Instead, we have tales like Bertapelle’s: gap-ridden mysteries, with little to go on but scans of centre labels and the music itself, which is seemingly just as enigmatic as the pseudonyms and song titles.
Other mysterious Bertapelle productions:
Afrikan Style “Ayee” 12″ (PLM Records, 1995) Kikka “Could It Be Love” 12″ (21st Century Records, 1996) Ice Cube “Involution” 12″ (Mammut, 1996) Chris J. “Get My Way” 12″ (Club Jam, 1996) Young Power “The Progressive Theme” (Strike Force, 1996) Tandoori “Incense Glow” 12″ (Strike Force, 1997) Scum-Bum “Ora Et Labora” 12″ (PRG, 1997)
While plundering for bizarre musical phenomena, I had the pleasure of discovering this wonderful list of “Wonders of Digi-Art,” as compiled by a prolific RateYourMusic user named strugatsky. That user, who has an affinity for weird and wonderful cover art as well as esoteric strains of doom and black metal, has put together a fascinating list of deeply obscure records with charming covers featuring the latest & greatest in cutting-edge graphics software, to wit:
What makes this list especially gripping is how profoundly obscure it all us. It’s a fiesta of whimsical cover art, with not a familiar name in sight. Self-releases, micro-label treasures, and pop chart near-misses are all featured, each treasure decorated with garish Photoshop effects. In most cases, scant information survives online about these magical records.
Below are some highlights of the very first part of the alphabetical list — spanning numbers and the letter A — complete with the stories behind the music, as far as I can recover them from the ever-diminishing annals of history.
4 Tune Fairytales – Fantasies (1997)
A half-smile superimposed on a virtual sandscape: what’s not to like? And yet the public at large could easily have never seen this beautiful image, since Fantasies was never actually released.
The dance group 4 Tune Fairytales emerged from Amsterdam in 1996 with a debut single called “My Little Fantasy.” It became a real hit in the Netherlands, reaching number 17 on their local top 40 chart. It even had its own music video, a charmingly low-budget digi-art time capsule in itself:
The group emerged from the then-booming happy hardcore scene, a splinter of the Dutch gabber scene. Both gabber and happy hardcore were pushing dance music tempos to previously unmatched highs, but while gabber was dark and menacing, happy hardcore was defined by its peppy melodies and relentless jubilance. The group was fronted by singer Lilian Van Sonsbeek; the line-up was filled out by a rapper and two dancers. Following “My Little Fantasy,” they released two further singles, “Take Me 2 Wonderland” and “Ding-A-Dong,” the latter a remake of the Netherlands’ winning Eurovision entry, “Ding dinge dong.” Neither song so much as grazed the Dutch music charts, which is how their debut album found its way into utter obscurity.
The Fantasies album was produced, recorded, and, according to a YouTube comment apparently authored by group member Richard Van Enteren, it was scheduled to come out on ID&T, one of the major gabber labels in the Netherlands at the time. However, Van Sonsbeek et al. were unhappy with the quality of the many remixes that the label was planning to include on the disc, reportedly without their knowledge. Therefore, they demanded the label pull the plug on the CD. According to a comment attributed to Van Sonsbeek, only a handful of promotional copies and copies for the group were ever produced. Copies of these scant few CDs have subsequently sold for over one hundred dollars apiece to desperate collectors, with discs only emerging sporadically (the last Discogs sale occurred in 2015, and none are currently on offer).
Fantasies itself is a fun albeit repetitious listen. It has seven real songs on it, plus an intro and six remixes of said songs. A lowlight is a dismal cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” A highlight is the A.K. Jungle Remix of “Melody of Love”:
The cover art on this record is attributed to Victor Feenstra, a prolific Dutch visual artist known for producing artwork for the Thunderdome franchise of gabber parties and CD compilations. Feenstra recently compiled much of his cover and flyer art into a book, despite the fact that many of the originals were lost when a shaving mirror sitting underneath a window in his mother’s attic magnified sunlight onto his files, incinerating the entire archive!
Aastyra – Aastral Projections (2007)
The black metal scene in the Northern Ontario city of Sudbury is quite the tangle, and this one-off side project may be the strangest offering to emerge from the area. Aastyra was primarily the work of Darren Favot, who also went by the stage name Fraust. His main project at the time was the band Wolven Ancestry, a melodic black metal band whose other member, Lord Defiler, now produces documentaries about conspiracy theories.
Aastral Projections is noteworthy not just because of its cover, nor the abundance of the letter ‘A’ — it is also a peculiar pastiche of epic black metal, ambient music, and Hawkwind-esque space- and prog-rock. The best moment is the nine-minute ambient epic, “Wanderer of the Post-Apocalypse”:
Details about Aastral Projections are hard to come by. In interviews, Favot hasn’t seemed discuss the record much, and it appears to be a largely forgotten artifact of Sudbury’s extreme metal scene. Favot is now better known for his part in two different bands. He uses the name “The Bard” for the doom/black metal band Finnr’s Cane, which has been their scene’s most successful export, signed to the German label Prophecy Productions and distributed internationally. Their trademark is heavy use of cello:
Favot also participates in an experimental black metal band named Fractal Generator, where each member is referred to by a sequence of numbers. (Favot is assigned the integer 040118180514.) They, too, are no strangers to the wonders of digi-art:
Aereda – From A Long Forgotten Future (2000)
Look at that cover! Evocative of the Myst computer game series and the works of other cyber-new-age acts, this disc sounds exactly as you expect it to. The File Under Jurassic Rock guide to progressive rock considers it “probably a cash-in project after the success of ‘Adiemus’ and Enigma, blending Gregorian chants, new age, dance and ethnic elements.” You be the judge:
Aereda was a Dutch music project organized by a producer named Martin Scheffer, a founding member of a progressive rock group named Taurus, for which he played guitar. Despite a debut single released by Mercury, mainstream success eluded them, perhaps because their music already sounded dated by the time their debut album, Illusions Of A Night, surfaced in 1981:
Scheffer has proven a versatile studio producer. His 1997 debut under the name Aereda was a modest success (number 55 on the Dutch album charts), likely because it doubled as the official soundtrack to a popular television production at the time, a documentary about the Netherlands’ expedition to the North Pole. That record, The Arctic (The Journey Begins), also features a swell cover:
From a Long Forgotten Future, which wasn’t tied to a television production, managed to reach number 63 on the album chart. It was produced by Dan Lacksman, a Belgian producer who was previously a member of the legendary group Telex. Telex were noteworthy for their embrace of the experimental end of synth-pop; in 1980, they were selected by Belgium to record a song for Eurovision and, reportedly with the goal of finishing dead last, they submitted the ironic single “Euro-Vision” which was performed deadpan with deliberately banal lyrics. (It came in third to last).
From A Long Forgotten Future, in true Y2K spirit, came accompanied with enhanced content, including a screensaver and a digital menu. In a Dan Brown-esque move that matches the cover art’s aesthetic to a tee, one of the album’s tracks is based on the manuscripts of Thomas Aquinas. And the front cover is just the tip of the iceberg — everything else about this record’s design is magnificent:
From prog guitarist to new age programmer, Martin Scheffer has proven himself a versatile producer. Through his studio, MBS-Moebius Studio, he architected a number of albums at the turn of the millennium. He created a CD trilogy, The Ambient World, which is more trite new-agey chillout music, each disc themed to a different continent. The seemingly unironic Mysteries of Africa wields an on-theme inattention to linguistic detail, its tracks including “Savanah [sic] Song,” “Serengetti [sic] Sunrise,” and “Wilderbeest [sic] Stampede.” The latter one is all the more perplexing, given that the word “wildebeest” is of Dutch origin.
The “Mysteries of [continent]” series has been repackaged wholesale in a number of forms. Mysteries of Africa and Mysteries of Asia were both put out, the same year, under the auspices of a different series: World Flavours. (Which seems to better capture the spirit of cultural appropriation.) Therein, the music is attributed not to Scheffer but instead the ethnic-sounding K’Zula. In a great bit of postmodernism, the music is still pinging around, divorced from its origins — in 2019, a faceless label named “Master Street” licensed the entire album, this time attributing it to the artist Dogo Jelani and coining the mouthful title, From the African Savannah to Kilimanjaro – A Mystical Musical Odysee. The cover art appears to be a rather refined bit of digi-art: a synthesized valleyscape, perhaps royalty-free, which has been repurposed widely:
But Scheffer was not satisfied with Mystical new age schmaltz nor by-the-continent appropriation. The following year, he is credited with two CDs using the moniker Chevy Martin. This time the aesthetic is early-aughts wine bar music. Indeed, the records, generically titled Just Lounge and Classic Lounge, sound fresh from an Absolut ad. I am partial to the smooth “Everybody Dance,” which manages an uncanny valley-esque surrealism. First of all, despite its title, its languid tempo leaves one to wonder: who on Earth would dance to this? And it is somehow both generic and exquisitely askew — it (and many songs on this record) sound like they could be from the soundtrack to Lost Highway.
Ambient Theology – Self-titled (1996)
Perhaps the finest work on this list, this one-off project was the work of Stefan Nelson and Greg Young, better known as the electronic act Virus. Ambient Theology was named to be distinct from Virus, with the focus on soundscapery rather than beat-driven techno. Befitting the name, this is a vaguely Christian release, released on a Christian dance label named N*Soul. Being an instrumental record, however, there is nothing explicitly religious about the music itself, as far as I can divine. It is a charming ambient journey, all synthesizers and sound effects. Young has generously made the record freely available on archive.org.
The N*Soul label was an interesting story itself. A Christian dance label started by an early Christian DJ named Scott Blackwell, it featured a variety of different artists producing different varieties of dance music, in many cases UK artists licensed to the US. Manchester’s Preacha produced exuberant house anthems fueled by Christian messages. Faith Massive were an LTJ Bukem-style liquid funk act with an apostolic twist. Nitro Praise was the label’s roster performing electronic covers of worship songs. N*Soul’s goal was to break these acts to the secular market although that never ended up happening. Instead, Blackwell handed over the label at the turn of the millennium. Thereafter, it has been claimed (on Greg Young’s website and on the N*Soul Discogs entry) that the label eventually started selling CD-R versions of their catalogue without compensating the artists.
ARZ – The Magi (2005)
ARZ started as the solo project of Portland, Oregonian guitarist Steve Adams. It was originally to be named ARS (an acronym consisting of his and his brother Robert’s initials), but Adams tweaked it because he thought it was too close to the British term, arse. (I am not making this up.) The Magi is an instrumental prog concept album, meant, according to Adams, “to capture a state of mind or ‘feeling'” as well as to tell “tales of ancient mythos and future worlds.”
Ultimately, this one-man production is a skillful lesson in the art of overdubbing, the centrepiece being the one-two punch of “Ur” and “The Magi,” together encompassing nearly 40 minutes. I believe the cover art is meant to depict two magi summoning a spirit through music; the album itself captures that vibe acceptably.
ARZ continues today, having picked up a second member, Merrill Hale, in 2007. (The two met while playing in a local Yes tribute act.) They continue to churn out excellent cover art:
Aska Temple – Hosanna (2001)
This CD-R release is such a deep cut it hasn’t made it onto Discogs. (As a result, only a low-res image exists). A krautrock-obsessed Japanese guitarist named Muneharu Yuba adopts the stage name John Übel, “assembling” the one-man band Aska Temple as an obvious reference to Ash Ra Tempel. The record has been scrubbed from the internet, but a contemporary review salvaged from an archived version of Yuba’s old website (he died in 2012 at the age of 46, sadly) records that this was exclusively composed of overdubbed synthesizers. Elsewhere, it is described as resembling early Popol Vuh.
Not too much is recorded of Yuba’s life, although his website references time spent in psychiatric institutions and an enthusiasm for big ideas. From his website, he describes taking inspiration for his 2003 A Night By The Pavane album from multiple sources:
“I read BIBLE in the isolated room of mental hospital.After I went out hospital,I covered VIVALDI,RAVEL,BARBER,CHOPIN,BALTOK,by electric guitar.and I read all through CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON of KANT in English,Les miserables2,HUGO,SADE, BAUDLAIRE,MALLARME,ARTHURE RIMBAUD in French,HEESE in Deutsch.I am reading HEGEL,HEIDEGGER,NOVALIS in Deutsch”
Befitting the orgy of influences, much of his work evokes a whimsical “psychedelia overdrive” mentality:
The cover of Hossana, meanwhile, uses the central figure from Maxfield Parrish’s painting, “Ecstasy,” but suspends it in the sky underneath WordArt-y typography. It’s a good look.
Yuba’s sprawling discography, which includes at least 24 minimally-archived CD-Rs on his Nicht Records label, may be due for a thorough appraisal and perhaps a Numero Group boxset re-release.
Astralasia – Whatever Happened To Utopia (1994)
There are more obscure titles on this list, but this record stands out for its amazing nineties digi-art cover as well as its overall quality. The British act Astralasia started off life in the late eighties as a side project of a psychedelic pop concern named The Magic Mushroom Band, which had been around since 1982. The principal sound architect was a keyboardist who went by the name Swordfish; he conceptualized Astralasia as an outlet for exploring longer-form dub and electronic music. From their 1990 self-titled debut, Astralasia’s ebbing-and-flowing, synthesizer-led music garnered a cult following which would see them overlapping with the growing electronic scene in the UK — though, being journeyman psychedelic artists, they were coming from a bit of a different place than many electronic producers popular at the time. Astralasia’s progressive, build-and-release sound is sometimes considered a progenitor to trance music, and this album represents the start of their golden era. The key referents are ambient and dub, this record having surfaced in the thick of the early- to mid-90s chillout fever, just a few years after The KLF’s Chill Out.
Atlantic Ocean – Waterfall (1994)
This cover is a true beauty, capturing the Nintendo 64 aesthetic to a tee. It is the third Dutch release on this list, in this case the lone album by trance duo Atlantic Ocean: two synth wizards who had a major European dance hit with the album’s title track — something like an EZ-listening take on 808 State’s “Pacific State”:
Atlantic Ocean were Lex van Coeverden and Rene van der Weyde, the latter of whom had a few years earlier released a Dutch club hit, “Deep Inside Of Me,” under the pseudonym TFX. Yet when they came together to record “Waterfall,” it was success on a whole other level. The single reached number two on the Dutch Top 40, even though it had originally been conceived as a B-side.
Following “Waterfall,” each subsequent follow-up single was less successful than the last — though their music videos are quintessential-nineties treasures. “Body In Motion,” their second-biggest hit, is correctly described by one YouTube commenter as “Waterfall” with vocals. These come courtesy of the Surinamese-Dutch singer Farida Merville, who previously was featured in the house/techno act Quazar.
Despite its awkward name, the third single, “Music Is A Passion” may have been their finest work:
The Waterfall album collected these three core singles alongside a pile of filler with generic titles like “On A Journey,” “Move Baby,” and “Beach Party.” Somehow, it is over 70 minutes long.
The cover art for Waterfall was done by Ben Liebrand, a Dutch DJ who had success in the eighties and trained himself to create 3D art after his music stopped paying the bills. His futuristic renderings adorn many a dance record in the mid-90s period, where he seems to have been the in-house graphic designer for the Arcade label. The golden-dolphins motif even recurs:
Better still, a latter-era 1999 Atlantic Ocean single named “Trance-Atlantis” features a Ben Liebrand produced 3D music video, which was contained on the maxi-single CD version as a bit of enhanced content. The terminally bland song didn’t make the slightest indentation on the national pop charts, but the magnificence of its video lives on, dolphins and all, not unlike an underwater level from Super Mario 64:
α:Vout – Trick Theater
“Visual kei” refers to a fashion aesthetic among Japanese musicians in which they adopt an androgynous, flamboyant look inspired by seventies glam-rock. Popular in the eighties and nineties among Japanese hard rock bands like X Japan and D’erlanger, the style was revived in the 2000s on the country’s indie circuit, leading to a booming subculture that propagated on the Livejournal underground.
α:Vout were one of the more obscure exponents of this neo-visual kei scene, a squad of youngsters playing glammy, polished rock as evidenced on this song from Trick Theater:
In this archived interview, they provide largely banal answers to largely banal questions (“If you were to compare yourself to an animal, what animal would you say you were? Please tell us why.”) Yet one member reveals the goal was to create a band similar to Hanoi Rocks, which, I suppose, is as good a goal as any for a gang of youths.
Awenson – Saphonic (2007)
Saphonic was originally a self-released CD-R issued by an obscure synth wizard named Joël Bernard. In this case, the music matches the cover art quite well — not so much in terms of the absurd golden nude, but rather the spacey landscape projected behind her.
Bernard is a disciple of the Berlin School, an extension of seventies kraut-rock that was more about amorphous electronics than rhythm. In a French interview, he describes discovering Pink Floyd as a teenager, then hearing the electronics-forward music of Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk at age 15. Yet it was only at age 30 that he purchased his first synthesizer. After releasing his first CD, Shadows, in 2005 (then recording under the name Awen), he expanded his name to Awenson and put out Saphonic. This record is a true treat, perfectly suited to the mid-2000s drone/space-electronics boom heralded by the likes of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never. Hear for yourself in this brief gem, pulled from a 2012 reissue of the album by the French label Dreaming:
Thus concludes our tour of the highlights of the Wonders of Digi-Art list, up until the end of the letter A. The list is so sprawling that nearly every letter of the alphabet could spawn its own article, telling the esoteric stories behind these many exquisitely designed releases. (Though I can assure you it would be overwhelmingly heavy in progressive-rock and neo-AOR content.)