Devo’s Gerald Casale to world: “We tried to warn you”

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There’s a chance something miraculous might happen tomorrow: Art school project turned synth-rock pioneers Devo might get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They wouldn’t be the first weirdos to crash the Rock Hall — Frank Zappa had that honor in 1995, followed by Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997 — but for a band that’s still unjustly known more as a one-hit wonder than as a groundbreaking conceptual group, it would be a pretty major coup for them to be enshrined alongside The Beatles and Elvis and Bon fucking Jovi and all the other canonical rock gods. There’s even a very, very slim chance that they’ll be in the same induction class as Kraftwerk, who are also nominated this year — which would make 2019 the weirdest and synth-iest R&RHOF class ever. (But don’t hold your breath — Stevie Nicks, The Zombies and Def Leppard are nominated, too, and they’ll almost certainly be at the front of the line with voters this year.)

To celebrate this fleeting gesture of mainstream acknowledgement, Devo founder Gerald Casale wrote a remarkable open letter to fans on Noisey, Vice’s music website, reflecting on the band’s history and the prescience of their kidding-but-not-really theory of “devolution,” which posits that humans are doomed not to evolve, but to devolve, as our increasingly sophisticated technologies, marketing methodologies, and political systems cater ever more effectively to our baser instincts. “When Devo formed more than 40 years ago, we never dreamed that two decades into the 21st century, everything we had theorized would not only be proven, but also become worse than we had imagined,” Casale writes.

I encourage you to read Casale’s whole letter, which is a brilliantly cranky screed. It’s especially enlightening if you don’t know Devo’s full history (for the uninitiated, here’s a teaser: The band was founded by a group of Kent State University grads in the early ’70s, after a certain infamous shooting took place there). But here’s the heart of what he’s getting at:

We are drowning in a devolved, WWF Smackdown-style world, with warring, huckster TV pundits from “The Left” and “The Right” distracting the clueless TV viewership while our vile, venal Mobster-in-Chief (who makes Idiocracy’s Macho Camacho look fit for office) and his corrupt minions rob the nation’s coffers in a shamelessly cruel, Grab-‘Em-By-The-Pussy Kleptocracy. …

So, let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late. Perhaps the reason Devo was even nominated after 15 years of eligibility is because Western society seems locked in a death wish. Devo doesn’t skew so outside the box anymore. Maybe people are a bit nostalgic for our DIY originality and substance. We were the canaries in the coalmine warning our fans and foes of things to come in the guise of the Court Jester, examples of conformity in extremis in order to warn against conformity.

Casale ends his essay by describing Devo as “the house band on the Titanic” and asking rhetorically, “Is there any question that De-evolution is real?” Nope, Jerry, I’d say you and your bandmates pretty much nailed that one. Well done! Except we’re probably now all doomed and, if your theory of “de-evolution” applies to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which it clearly does — did I mention they inducted Bon fucking Jovi?), then they’ll almost certainly induct the strip-club soundtrack machine that is Def Leppard and pass over Devo. So you won’t be inducted but hey, at least you’ll be proven right.

If by some miracle Devo does get inducted, we’ll be back tomorrow with some exploding head GIFs.

 

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Barnes and Barnes are back with a Christmas album

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One of the very first bands we blogged about was Barnes and Barnes, the comedy rock duo best-known for their 1978 novelty hit “Fish Heads.” Way back then, in 2009, when music blogs were still a thing and everyone carried their entire music collection around with them on devices calls “pods” (ask your parents), Art and Artie Barnes had just emerged from a long hibernation to release Opbopachop, their first album in 18 years. Then, perhaps not caring for the idea of the unwashed masses listening to such sonic masterpieces as “Heinous Anus” and “Life Is What You Do Between Orgasms” on little pods, they fell silent again. Until now.

Last month, Barnes and Barnes returned with, of all things, a holiday album. It’s called Holidaze in Lumania and it’s 14 original tracks of heartwarming cheer and goofy comedy laced with just the right amount of pitch-black absurdist humor, like a shiny candy cane with a vein of coal running down the middle. There’s a song, for example, called “Why Mommy, Why Do You Cry?” about how the holidays kinda suck for everyone who doesn’t have a happy, fully intact nuclear family, and “Down by Candy Cane Lane” is all about how the titular lane is occupied by hookers, ex-cons and Krampus, the Christmas demon. Then there’s “The Angel of Death Is Near,” which is pretty self-explanatory, and “Silent Night Holy Newt,” which is basically just “Silent Night” with amphibians. It’s fun stuff. Our thanks to Artie Barnes, who took to the time to personally contact us (we’re not worthy!) to let us know of its holly, jolly existence.

Holidaze in Lumania is available now on CD Baby, or you can stream the whole thing on Spotify if shiny plastic discs aren’t your thing. It makes a great stocking stuffer though, don’t you think? Also, did we mention it’s totally inclusive and non-denominational? It’s true! There’s a Kwanzaa song and a “Jesus Is Groovy” song and a Hanukkah song that we’ll leave you with, even though Hanukkah ended two nights ago and all the Manischewitz has been drunk and/or poured down the sink where it belongs. Seriously, this shit is ghastly. But hey, Baruch atah Adonai and all that.

Weird of the Day: Holly Herndon, Jlin and Spawn, “Godmother”

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There’s a lot of anxiety in the music business right now over artificial intelligence, which everyone seems to think is going to eventually generate all of our pop music and put a lot of producers, singers and songwriters out of work. This fear probably says more about the state of current pop music than it does about the potential of AI; if the music you’re creating can really be that easily learned and imitated by a computer, maybe the music you’re creating is, oh I don’t know, a giant steaming pile of uninspired, formulaic horseshit? (I’m looking at you, Chainsmokers. But I digress.)

Rather than fear our future AI overlords, some forward-thinking artists are happily enlisting them as collaborators. That’s what experimental electronic producer and vocal looper Holly Herndon has been doing the past couple years with an AI she and her team in Berlin have built called Spawn. They’ve been carefully feeding Spawn various bits of music, including Herndon’s vocals, to “teach” her (Spawn is a she, until she tells her creators otherwise) how to spontaneously generate music in a variety of styles. Earlier today, they released one of Spawn’s first creations, a collaboration with Herndon and Chicago IDM/footwork producer Jlin called “Godmother.” The track features an accompanying video that overlays Herndon and Jlin’s faces in various unnerving ways. Check it out:

Pretty cool, right? In explaining how the track was created, Herndon says they simply fed Spawn a bunch of Jlin’s music, then had her combine it with Herndon’s trademark looped and chopped vocals. Or as Herndon puts it, “‘Godmother’ was generated from her listening to the artworks of her godmother Jlin, and attempting to reimagine them in her mother’s voice.”

“Simply through witnessing music, Spawn is already pretty good at learning to recreate signature composition styles or vocal characters, and will only get better,” Herndon said in a statement accompanying the track’s release. “Are we to recoil from these developments, and place limitations on the ability for non-human entities like Spawn to witness things that we want to protect? Is permission-less mimicry the logical end point of a data-driven new musical ecosystem surgically tailored to give people more of what they like, with less and less emphasis on the provenance, or identity, of an idea? Or is there a more beautiful, symbiotic, path of machine/human collaboration, owing to the legacies of pioneers like George Lewis, that view these developments as an opportunity to reconsider who we are, and dream up new ways of creating and organizing accordingly.”

Separately and more prosaically, on Twitter, Herndon recently noted, “Perhaps the coolest breakthrough in Godmother was that Spawn wasn’t trained on my producing any explicitly ‘percussive’ sounds (beat boxing). She must have constructed them from percussive consonants in my speech data, but it sounds convincing and evolves. It’s almost *too convincing*, which made me nervous to release it in case people thought I might start beat boxing on stage or something.”

Spawn has already made its her debut public performance, in Berlin earlier this year, and will feature heavily on Herndon’s next album, which is slated for a 2019 release.

You can buy “Godmother” or add it to playlists on the platform of your choice here.

Laibach’s “The Lonely Goatherd” video is creepy. And charming. But mostly creepy.

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Slovenian art-rockers Laibach have long possessed an uncanny ability to take even the most well-worn songs and make them sound unfamiliar and more than a little creepy, from “In the Army Now” to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But they’ve really outdone themselves with their recent reinvention of The Sound of Music.

After releasing videos of their oddly affecting interpretations of the title track and “My Favorite Things,” they recently dropped the project’s third and most bizarre video yet, for their mournful take on “The Lonely Goatherd.” In the clip, which features guest vocalist Boris Benko alongside Laibach’s gravel-voiced frontman, Milan Fras, Fras plays shepherd to a flock of dancing young girls in kneesocks as Benko looks on through a pair of binoculars in his alpineer’s tweed jacket and hiking boots, shotgun ominously slung over one shoulder. It’s all very voyeuristic and vaguely pedophiliac until Fras and Benko suddenly break out their own awkwardly charming dance moves near the video’s end. Fras even yodels, if you can call anything he does with his graveyard rasp yodeling. So maybe it’s all good, innocent fun. Unless it isn’t.

For more on Laibach’s The Sound of Music, read our last post about it or visit the website of their label, Mute Records.

Weird Band of the Week: Diamanda Galás

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Many of the artists we write about here on TWBITW are hiding in plain sight, as it were. They’re so famous or critically acclaimed or both that it’s easy to overlook how genuinely, groundbreakingly bizarre they are. Such is the case with the brilliant, mercurial, occasionally terrifying singer/pianist Diamanda Galás, who for nearly 40 years has been doing for the human voice what artists like Whitehouse and Aphex Twin do for synthesizers, stretching it almost beyond recognition and testing the outer limits of music (and some listeners’ tolerance) in the process.

Right from the start, Galás announced herself as an avant-garde force. Her 1982 debut album, The Litanies of Satan, featured a 17-minute title track based on the writings of Charles Baudelaire that was full of electronic distortion and eerily pitch-shifted vocals, as well as an even more astonishing track called “Wild Women with Steak-Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream)” on which Galás shrieked and gibbered with such demonic intensity — this time without any electronic embellishments — it was hard to believe the sounds were human:

The maker of those otherworldly sounds grew up in San Diego, which seems like an improbable point of origin but has long been an unlikely hotbed of weird music (see also: The Locust, Author and Punisher). She trained not as a singer, but as a pianist, and was a prodigy on the instrument — by age 14, she was performing Beethoven with the San Diego Symphony. She also performed with her father’s band, playing Greek and Arabic music — which must have influenced her ululating singing style, although her strictly religious Greek Orthodox parents discouraged her from singing because they considered it vulgar. It wasn’t until she went away to college that she discovered her unbelievable vocal range and got some opera training, which led to her first public singing performance in France in 1979, playing the role of a torture victim in an opera called Un Jour Comme un Autre (A Day Like Any Other).

It’s tempting to say that Galás has been playing the role of torture victim ever since, but less flippant and more accurate to say that she uses her remarkable voice to express human suffering in all its bleakly variegated forms. Her work in the late ’80s and early ’90s addressed the AIDS epidemic — which claimed her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, in 1986. She based a 2004 piece called Defixiones, Will and Testament on the works of exiled poets and dedicated it to victims of the Armenian, Assyrian and Anatolian Greek genocides that occurred under the Ottoman Empire. Throughout her career, she has frequently returned to American blues and gospel standards, like “Let My People Go,” that are rooted in the African-American experience of slavery, segregation and racism (she’s cited Nina Simone as an influence, or at least a source of inspiration). “I’m doing music for people who are conscious and who suffer deeply,” she once said.

For all her avant-garde tendencies, Galás has had more than a few brushes with mainstream fame. She had a full-on MTV moment in 1988 with “Double Barrel Prayer,” a song from You Must Be Certain of the Devil, the third part of her AIDS-themed trilogy of albums, collectively called Masque of Red Death. I’m not sure how much this video for “Double Barrel Prayer” actually got played on MTV, but I like to think its operatic banshee wails and Carrie-like bloodbath climax blew a few minds in Middle America. Unless it was banned, which come to think of it seems likelier.

In 1994, Galás teamed up with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on an album called The Sporting Life, a collaboration that makes no sense on paper but actually resulted in a fairly awesome set of Middle Eastern-tinged rock stompers with Galás wailing and declaiming like the wild-child offspring of Grace Jones and Robert Plant. It also resulted in one of my favorite early ’90s cultural artifacts — this appearance by Galás and Jones on The Jon Stewart Show, a short-lived late-night MTV talk show hosted by the babyfaced future genius of political comedy. Despite the terrible audio, you can still hear how insanely hard Galás brought it with her incantatory vocals.

After The Sporting Life, Galás continued to tour and perform and occasionally release new music via live performance, apparently preferring that to the confines of the recording studio. She’s grown especially interested in performing in total darkness because, as she put it in one interview, “the visual world is much easier to access than the sonic world” — in other words, much like electronic experimentalists Autechre, she finds her audience can better commune with her challenging music when freed from any visual distractions. Her first such performance, Shrei x, took place in 1996 and was released as a live album; more recently, she performed a new work-in-progress called Espergesia in the darkness of a mausoleum in Oslo, the first of what she hopes will be “a series of performances of the work in highly reverberant sacred spaces.”

Although Galás is about as sui generis as they come, it’s fascinating to trace her own influences, which include such varied sources as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, flamenco music, the lamentational amanedes singing style of Greece and Western Anatolia, horror film soundtracks, Greek-Romanian avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, Arthur Brown, Peggy Lee and Chaka Khan. (She enumerated these and other influences once in a great list for Pitchfork.) And she in turn has influenced several generations of boundary-pushing singers, including Mike Patton (whom she despises), Björk, Anohni and Zola Jesus.

Last year, Galás released her latest album, All the Way, a hodgepodge collection of traditional songs and jazz standards, some recorded live and some in the studio, all split open by her swooping, melodramatic vocals and probing, expressionistic piano: “All the Way,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Round Midnight.” The whole album is amazing and almost hallucinatory in the way it twists familiar fragments of lyric and melody into alien contours, but I’ll leave you with what I think is the kill shot — an astonishing, 11-minute transmogrification of “O Death,” the folk song popularized in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? “O Death” is an unnerving song even in its most innocuous renderings, but Galás sings it like she’s trying to shatter the barrier between this world and the next. (In an interview with Rolling Stone, she described her “O Death” performance way better than I ever could; it’s well worth a read. “When I finished that performance, there was blood all over the keyboard,” she says at one point. “I couldn’t imagine why. What I had done is I had broken my nails, all of them, when I was playing. And I never enjoyed a performance so much in my life.”)

P.S. Many, many readers have suggested we add Diamanda to the Weird List over the years, but we have to give a special shoutout to readers Daniel and vvaspss for suggesting her almost simultaneously earlier this week. Weird minds think alike!

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Bull of Heaven

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How far can you push the boundaries of music until it becomes just noise? Plenty of our favorite experimental bands and composers, from John Cage to Stalaggh/Gulaggh have toyed with this notion — but none have taken it to more extreme lengths (literally) than Denver ambient noise/drone duo Bull of Heaven.

Over the course of more than 450 releases (and counting), Bull of Heaven have put out billions of hours an infinity’s worth of their eerie, glacial soundscapes — challenging not just listeners’ attention spans, but in some ways the very concept of music composition itself. When one of your pieces takes 3.343 quindecillion years to listen to (a “quindecillion,” by the way, is 1048, or a 1 followed by 48 zeros), are you really writing music or just a mathematical abstraction of music? Can you actually compose a piece of music in a shorter time than it takes to play that piece of music? How often, if at all, does the music change over those 3.343 quindecillion years — and at what point does it cease to matter, since there will be no humans left to listen to it, and perhaps not even a universe left to listen to it in? The mind reels — as does my syntax when attempting to describe this shit.

Bull of Heaven’s music isn’t completely uniform — there are forays into doom metal and psych-rock and sound collage and even jazz. But this five-hour excerpt from one of their most well-known experiments in interminability, a 1,453-hour release called The Chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space, gives you a pretty good idea of their preferred sound, which tends to resemble the squall of noise the amps make at the end of a Sunn O))) concert, time-stretched into eternity.

If you lost interest, oh, about 24 minutes into that, don’t worry — you’re far from alone. The most exhaustive cataloger of Bull of Heaven’s music, a long-suffering fan called Hakita on RateYourMusic.com, frequently sounds less than enthused when describing the duo’s more long-winded efforts. “Could use more variety, especially since it’s one week long,” he/she writes about The Wicked Cease From Struggling, “but I didn’t hate listening to the [63-minute] excerpt.” (Helpfully, Bull of Heaven often release “excerpts” of their longest pieces, so if you’re too lazy and/or mortal to make it through the full-length, you can at least get a taste.)

The guys behind all this cosmically creeping doom are not some academic aesthetes who teach aleatoric composition at NYU or some shit. One, Neil Keener, is a hardcore guitarist who achieved a modicum of renown with an Illinois band called Planes Mistaken for Stars. The other, Clayton Counts, was a DJ turned mash-up artist whose greatest claim to fame before Bull of Heaven was Sgt. Petsound’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a 2006 Beatles/Beach Boys hybridization that earned him a cease-and-desist letter from EMI (and which included the excellent song title, “I’m Fixing It, Dayhole”). They met in Chicago and later launched Bull of Heaven together in Denver — where, sadly, Counts died of an opioid overdose in 2016, only eight years after launching the project.

For a while, it seemed like Bull of Heaven might have died with Counts. But just a couple months ago, Keener released a new BoH album called Fight Night for the Ghosts of Heaven, so it appears he plans to keep the project going as a solo venture, perhaps in tribute to his late bandmate. Fight Night is, by Bull of Heaven standards, a downright conventional affair, clocking in at a mere, relatively non-repetitive 36 minutes, broken into what sound like discrete, song-length chunks. But it’s beautiful stuff and every bit as eerie as the duo’s earlier work.

It’s worth noting that Counts was such a prankster that when he died, many of his friends assumed the whole thing was an elaborate joke. As a young man in Texas, he achieved some local notoriety for his constant prank phone calls to conspiracy theory jag-off Alex Jones, then a public-access cable wingnut in Austin. So it’s likely Counts was yanking everyone’s chain a little when he composed, say, a 50,000-hour piece called Like a Wall in Which an Insect Lives and Gnaws that consists of little more than fluctuating pulses of static and noise. It would take nearly six years to listen to Like a Wall in its entirety — six years in which Counts and Keener released many more billions of hours of music, much of which has presumably still never been heard by anyone, because who in their right mind has made it all the way to hour 49,999 of Like a Wall in Which an Insect Lives and Gnaws?

But even if you view Bull of Heaven less as a band than as some elaborate art prank, it’s a pretty great one. And hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of the prank are some very profound thoughts about the nature of music and time and life and death and eternity and all kinds of other heavy shit. It also makes you question your own limitations as a consumer of art and just as a person living in the world with deadlines and responsibilities and bodily functions and other things that interfere with your ability to absorb, in a single sitting, even a relatively brief Bull of Heaven piece like the 24-hour Even to the Edge of Doom.

By the way, since for obvious reasons YouTube can’t possibly host much of Bull of Heaven’s catalog, the band has helpfully uploaded most of it to their website. My computer can’t play some of the longer pieces — like At the Tide’s Edge, I Lie, whose running time is just notated with an infinity symbol — but your mileage may vary.

I could go on about some of Counts and Keener’s many other, even more esoteric experiments — like their releases that are listed as having negative running time, or their untitled series, in which they released thousands of short pieces identified only by 32 digits each of hexadecimal code. They’ve also released an interactive piece of music that doubles as a calculator and MP3s that can be converted to RAR files that contain other MP3 files, like musical Russian nesting dolls. But I’d rather just leave you with the most batshit Bull of Heaven release I could find in my admittedly all-too-brief search through their catalog — this one-hour excerpt from a 59-hour piece called Vicious, Cruel, Incapable of Remorse, which sounds like a hungry tape deck mangling The Residents. And this one final thought: We often say that deceased musicians achieve immortality through their music, but I would argue that Clayton Counts has come closer to attaining that immortality than anyone. We’ll be listening to his music forever — literally.

P.S. Our thanks to Mr. Gredo and the Crushing Fetish Band for suggesting we add Bull of Heaven to the Weird List. You weren’t the first to suggest them, Mr. Gredo, but we have short attention spans and you were the first to successfully explain to us why it was actually worth our while to at least attempt to listen to a 5-hour YouTube upload.

P.P.S. We’ll be taking some time off this week to celebrate that odd American tradition of eating insane amounts of turkey in honor of our colonially rapacious past. But we’ll be back with more weirdness next week. For that, we hope, you can all be thankful.

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Weird of the Day: Tessa Makes Love, “Spente Le Stelle”

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Remember when American news show Inside Edition got a New York-based Russian musician named Tessa Lena to explain Little Big’s “Skibidi” video? Well, it turns out Tessa is a pretty great weird artist in her own right. She releases music under the name Tessa Makes Love, including a 2013 song called “Spente Le Stelle,” subtitled “Sexual Objectification Is Very Boring.” The accompanying video has racked up over a million views on YouTube — I’d like to believe because it’s a great, groovy track and Tessa’s operatic vocals are amazing, but I suspect her equally amazing body paint had something to do with it, too. “The jury is still out on how many people realized that the video was a satire making fun of sexual objectification,” Tessa admits on her website. Unfortunately, satire is usually lost on the folks who are doing the objectifying.

More recently, Tessa has released a full-length album called Tessa Fights Robots, a bizarre and brilliant mix of glitchy synth-pop and Tiger Lillies-like punk cabaret that explores the dehumanizing effects of technology on our increasingly data-driven times. She also a blog, also called Tessa Fights Robots, in which she shares her thoughts on everything from rape culture to Americans’ peculiar love of cultural stereotypes to the way political ideologies have taken on the rigidity of religious dogma. It’s heady stuff and well worth checking out — especially if you actually picked up on the fact that “Spente Le Stelle” is satire.