Glenn Branca

glenn-branca-double-guitar

Weird music lost one of the greats this week. Glenn Branca, who probably did more for the electric guitar than anyone since Les Paul, died on Sunday, May 13 of throat cancer at the age of 69. He leaves behind a beautiful, occasionally terrifying body of work that stretches back to the earliest days of New York’s No Wave scene right through to his recent experiments with traditional orchestras and 100-guitar symphonies. Any number of guitar- and noise-based bands we’ve written about in the past, from Boredoms to Sunn O))), owe him a huge debt.

Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1948 and got his start in the arts doing experimental theater in Boston. Like a lot of creative misfits of his generation, he was ultimately drawn to New York, where he formed a band called Static, later renamed Theoretical Girls, with a conceptual artist named Jeff Lohn. With Branca and Lohn on guitars, Lohn’s girlfriend Margaret DeWys on keyboards, and future Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers on drums (they usually dispensed with bass, though sometimes took turns playing one), Theoretical Girls helped define the short-lived No Wave scene that took the primitivism of punk rock and gave it an arty, dissonant twist. Only a dozen or so songs by Theoretical Girls were ever recorded, but they show Branca’s early interest in rock instrumentation as blunt force object, with a furiously percussive quality that builds and builds on every song until it makes your heart race.

Even before Theoretical Girls broke up in 1981, Branca had begun his own solo experiments, starting with a two-track EP in 1980 called Lesson No. 1 on which he combined No Wave with the avant-garde minimalism of composers like John Cage and Philip Glass, jamming around a single chord with a small orchestra of musicians to achieve a sound that was harsh but also somehow weightless.

He followed that up a year later with what many regard as his masterpiece, The Ascension, which used four guitars in various alternate tunings — including one played by future Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo — to create all sorts of crazy dissonance and unexpected overtones. It’s a brilliant piece of experimental art, but on another level it works as just a great, balls-out rock record, with moments that could pass for Television or The Stooges and other moments that still, to this day, don’t sound quite like anything else anyone’s recorded with electric guitars as the dominant instrument.

We hardly ever embed full album streams because everyone’s got the attention span of a cat on speed these days. But if you’ve never heard The Ascension, stop whatever you’re doing, crank up your good speakers, and blast this shit. (If you’re on the fence, maybe it’ll help to know it was one of David Bowie’s favorite records, which might explain that weird Tin Machine phase he went through a decade later. Or not.)

In later years, Branca continued to experiment with harmonics by building his own instruments — most famously, a double-bodied beast he called a “harmonics guitar” (seen in the photo above, and in this short video clip) that, according to its creator, could play “up to 32 to 64 different harmonics on each string depending on how it’s tuned.” (Side note: In 2015, Branca put the harmonics guitar up for sale on eBay, where it sold to some lucky bastard for a measly $787.) He also made “mallet guitars” designed to be played with drumsticks, like a zither or dulcimer, as well as developing his own tuning systems and harmonic theories.

But he always returned to his first love, the guitar. In a fascinating video interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014, he talked about getting his first guitar at 15, which was so crappy, with strings an inch off the fretboard, “I had to squeeze the music out of the thing” — an experience that seemed to set him up for the drastic guitar experiments he would conduct later in life.

None of those experiments was more gob-smacking than his symphonies for 100 guitars, the first of which was performed at the base of the World Trade Center in New York in June of 2001, just a few months before 9/11. Subtitled Hallucination City, Branca’s Symphony No. 13 was noise taken to its most sensory-overload extreme, as those 100 guitars flooded seemingly every frequency in the full sonic spectrum, creating a locust-swarm wall of chiming, droning overtones that, one imagines, must have left the audience feeling like they really had just hallucinated the whole thing.

In that Louisiana Museum of Modern Art interview, Branca says, “I don’t believe in this concept of objectivity. I hate it. This idea that we should all think the same way about things as the rest of us. That’s bullshit. We all see things in our own way and that’s a subjective idea.” To that end, he spent his entire career making music that, he hoped, would be ambiguous or even disorienting enough that each listener could respond to it in their own, totally subjective way. There are very few lyrics in Branca’s music, and never any overt messages, “so that the conscious mind — the one that’s been ingrained in us since we were children — would be broken open and allow us to have more access to our subconscious. Because we’re searching for: Exactly what is this that we’re listening to?”

With that, we’ll break your mind open with one last Branca composition: the first movement to his final 100-guitar symphony, No. 16 (Orgasm), captured here in Paris in its 2015 premiere performance. Rest in peace, Mr. Branca, and thanks for all the noise. May a choir of dissonant angels sing you into the void.

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Tonttu

Tonttu

Did you know that Finland apparently has a huge gnome problem? Not that the gnomes are huge. The gnomes there are tiny, just like they are everywhere else. Finland has a huge problem with tiny gnomes, is what we’re saying. And don’t let those Travelocity commercials fool you. They’re evil little fuckers hellbent on the destruction of all we hold dear.

Fortunately, one band is spreading the truth about gnomes and working day and night to wipe these pointy-hatted little shitbeards off the face of the earth once and for all. They’re called Tonttu and they were the runner-up in our last Weird Band Poll. Why didn’t they win? Fuckin’ gnomes, man. They’re everywhere. They’re even skewing our poll results! Holy shit, that must mean they’re on the Internet now. We’ve got a huge hacker gnome problem. Not that the hacker gnomes are huge…wait, I explained this already, didn’t I?

Anyway, yeah, Tonttu. They’re led by a guy who calls himself the Tonttufindergeneral Hanz-Baal, with the help of another guy who calls himself Großinquisitor Rudolf Von Deer. They call their music “anti-gnomemartialindustrialneofolkmetal.” Most of it is basically just anti-gnome public service announcements delivered in Finnish over music that makes the Schindler’s List soundtrack sound like Katy Perry, although some of it also features maniacal laughter, which I guess is supposed to be what the gnomes sound like when they get together to talk about their plans to murder us all while we sleep. And one track kinda sounds like a Finnish Rammstein, which is pretty cool.

We don’t speak Finnish, but TFG Hanz was nice enough to give us some of the lyrics in English. Here’s a sample:

The most mythical leader of Gnomes, the lump of lard rising up to the sky, the drooling blasphemer Yog-Sothoth
Highest of High Gnomes, in his creepy disguise

The great deception of Christmas flying in the sky,
Dressed in white beard, red jacket
No one should be deceived by that fake beard anymore

Flying in the glow of Fireballs,
Flying from the depths of Mushroom clouds,
Flying in the shadow of deceit,
Taking instead of giving

So yeah, basically, the gnomes are up to some serious Lovecraft shit. We’ve all been deceived. We are victims of a vast gnome conspiracy. Trust no one. Even David fuckin’ Bowie is in on it.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure your best defense against gnomes is to download one or more of Tonttu’s anti-gnome albums and play them on full blast 24/7. You can buy their two albums, Nekrognomekon and Anti-Gnomen Divisionen 4 (Mastering the fine art of gnome eradication), here and here. Or, if you want start eradicating gnomes for the low price of FREE, email us at weirdestbandintheworld@gmail.com. The first five people to do so will get free download codes from Anti-Gnomen Divisionen 4. That’s how much Tonttu want to protect you from the gnome menace.

We’ll leave you “Pääruoka,” which features that maniacal gnome laughter we mentioned earlier. Sweet dreams! Hope you don’t have one of those stupid little gnome night-lights. You may as well hang a sign on your bedroom door that says, “Kill me now with your tiny, tiny knives and feed me to your tiny, tiny reindeer.”

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Weird of the Day: Portsmouth Sinfonia, “Also sprach Zarathustra”

Portsmouth Sinfonia

What happens when you tackle the classical music canon with all the enthusiasm and rank amateurism of a high school garage-punk band? You get Portsmouth Sinfonia, a classical ensemble active in the ’70s that butchered reinterpreted everything from the William Tell Overture to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Originally made up of students from the Portsmouth School of Art, all of whom were either total beginners or trained musicians who had switched instruments, the project was conceived as a kidding-but-not-really experiment by a teacher/composer named Gavin Bryars. Bryars wanted to see if it was possible for novice musicians to play clumsy approximations of familiar classical pieces that would still be recognizable to audiences. Based on this version of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” better known now as the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’d say the experiment was a raging success.

Ironically, as members of the Sinfonia gradually got better at their instruments, the public lost interest, and the project disbanded in 1979. They’ve been back in the news this year because this marks the 40th anniversary of their legendary performance at the Royal Albert Hall (yes, they got so popular at one point that they played the Royal Albert Hall—that kinda sticks in your craw, doesn’t it, trained classical musicians?). We found them by way of an article on Cracked.com called “7 Bizarre Music Experiments That Went Shockingly Wrong” that also called out several Weird List bands, including Stalaggh/Gulaggh, Hatebeak and Matmos. I don’t think any of these experiments went “shockingly wrong,” per se—more like their creators set out to do stuff that would make people go, “That’s not right.”

Bonus fun fact: For awhile, Portsmouth Sinfonia counted Brian Eno and minimalist composer Michael Nyman among its members. In the right (or wrong?) context, we are all amateurs.

Moondog

Moondog
Photo by Peter Krabbe (lifted from Moondog’s Corner)

When I was a kid, my Dad worked in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. My Mom and I went into the city to visit him pretty regularly, mostly because my dentist’s office was in the same building. This would have been from about 1972 to 1980, which means I was around for the tail end of the illustrious busking career of Moondog, whose favorite venue was the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street, just a few blocks from my Dad’s office. Did I ever get to see Moondog in action? Sadly, I can’t remember. I’d say odds are good that I did, and odds are even better that my mother hurried me, mouth agog with freshly scrubbed pearlies, past the blind, white-bearded man dressed up like a Viking, telling me that it wasn’t polite to stare.

For over two decades, millions of New Yorkers and tourists stopped to stare at the man born Louis T. Hardin, most of them having no clue that the crazy, hairy guy in the leather helmet, playing what looked like a shoeshine box with a cymbal attached to it, was actually an accomplished musician and composer who hung out with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Charlie Parker. As street musicians go, Moondog was both as eccentric and as accomplished as they come.

Before he became Moondog, Hardin was a Midwestern farm kid, born in Kansas and raised in Wyoming and Missouri. He lost his eyesight at age 16 when, as he tells it, “I picked up a dynamite cap on a railroad track after a flood and pounded on it. It exploded in my face.” Already a drummer in his high school band, Hardin was accepted into the Iowa School for the Blind, where he picked up some formal musical training on various other instruments, including the pipe organ, which enabled him to start composing his own works.

In 1943, while he was in his late twenties, Hardin decided to move to New York City, hoping to connect with the city’s great classical composers and conductors. From hanging around outside Carnegie Hall, he met and befriended the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Artur Rodzinski, who invited the young blind man with the flowing black beard to sit in with the orchestra’s rehearsals. But Hardin, who wasn’t yet dressing like a Viking but did favor long, hooded monk’s robes, was a little too leftfield to hit it off with the buttoned-down classical musicians of the New York Phil. Soon, he was back on the street, where he instead began busking, reciting poetry and playing music on a growing collection of homemade, portable instruments.

As Hardin’s peculiar sidewalk performances attracted more notice, he began getting write-ups in the press. But as the estranged son of an Episcopalian minister, he was unhappy that many journalists described his berobed, long-bearded appearance as “Christ-like.” By the mid-’50s, he had transitioned to Viking garb for a more pagan look. He had also started calling himself Moondog and making more references to the Native American influences in his music, particularly in the syncopated rhythms that he liked to call “snake-time.”

We could end Moondog’s story right here and still make a case for including him on the Weird List. But it gets better. From his preferred street corner, midway between Carnegie Hall and the jazz clubs of 52nd Street, Hardin began attracting a cult following among many of the city’s best-known musicians. Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman were fans; so were Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. By the ’60s, he was hanging out with such counter-culture luminaries as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. When he performed indoors—which he did on occasion—he shared stages with the like of Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim. He even lived for a time with the minimalist composer Philip Glass, who cites Moondog’s spare, percussive fugues, rounds and minuets as a strong influence on his own work. (Moondog is often described as “homeless,” but this is somewhat misleading—only occasionally did he not have an apartment of his own, and when he didn’t, he usually stayed in fleabag hotels or with friends.)

Moondog’s music is, if anything, even more intriguing than the man himself. A mix of cryptic poetry, slinky jazz and stately, classical chamber pieces, it achieved an improbable level of popularity during his New York years, culminating in 1969’s Moondog, released on Columbia Records and produced by James William Guercio, whose other credits included Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The cover photo of Moondog, with his snow-white beard and glaring Viking’s visage, remains an iconic image of the ’60s alternative music scene.

By the time he left New York for Germany in 1974, Moondog had released six albums, four EPs and, of all things, an album of children’s music with Julie Andrews. His song “All Is Loneliness” had been covered by Janis Joplin. He had been interviewed and profiled by everyone from Collier’s to the New York Times. He even successfully sued DJ Alan Freed for the rights to the Moondog name.

But as New York City took a turn for the seedier in the ’70s, Moondog grew disenchanted with his adopted hometown. While on a tour of Europe in 1974, he decided to stay, eventually settling in a small city in West Germany called Recklinghausen. His move was so abrupt that many people back in New York assumed he had died. (Actually, many New Yorkers tend to assume this of anyone who leaves the Big Apple, it being the center of the universe and all.) But he lived on in Germany for another 25 years, continuing to compose and record and occasionally perform.

He rarely returned to America, though a welcome exception happened in 1989, when he came back to New York to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra at the New Music America festival. Treating him as though he had risen (Christ-like?) from the dead, the New York press fawned over him for a week. “Maybe it takes New York 15 years to miss you,” he quipped.

Moondog’s later works grew far more ambitious: Among them was his first complete symphony, a 25-part canon, and a nine-hour piece for 1,000 musicians called “Cosmos” that, for obvious reasons, has still never been performed. Oddly, his best-known work nowadays is probably a tribute to Charlie Parked called “Lament 1 (Bird’s Lament),” mainly because it was sampled in a popular jazz-house track by Mr. Scruff.

One of Moondog’s final works was among his weirdest. Released in Europe in 1994 and in the U.S. in 1997 (the final Moondog album released here before his death in 1999), Sax Pax for a Sax is a tribute to both the inventor of the saxophone and the great city Louis T. Hardin called home for three decades. Most of the music was performed by an all-sax-and-drums ensemble called The London Saxophonic, with occasional touches of piano and a solemn male chorus.

We’ll leave you with some classic Moondog from his NYC street-busking days. As far-out and eccentric as Moondog and his music could sometimes be, there’s also a simple, childlike beauty to a lot of it that stops you in your tracks. Almost as much as the sight of a white-bearded Viking hanging out on a street corner in midtown Manhattan.

Also, one final quote, from a 1953 magazine article. This is Moondog explaining to a bemused journalist why he liked performing on the streets:

I like to flaunt convention. In commercial music, I’d have to conform. But so long as I stay on the streets, people take this* because they think I’m a harmless eccentric. Maybe I am. But I do as I please. That’s more than most people can say. So far as I’m concerned, I’ve arrived.

(*By “this,” the journalist seemed to assume Moondog was referring only to his unusual manner of dress. We like to think he was referring to his music, as well.)

All hail the Viking of 6th Avenue!

P.S. Thanks to the magnificently named reader Eustaquio Habichuela Irsuto for first suggesting that we write about Moondog, well over a year ago. Sorry it took us awhile, Eustaquio.

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New Igorrr album “Hallelujah” should be a fitting soundtrack to the end of the world

Igorrr - Hallelujah album cover

As I’m sure you’re all aware, the world is going to end this Dec. 21st. But while you’re stocking up on guns and MREs and dodging flaming meteorites and whatnot, you should really take a few minutes to download Hallelujah, the new album from Igorrr. Assuming your Internet’s still working. If it’s not, you might have to go loot your local record shop instead.

Igorrr, who mixes breakcore, death metal and Baroque classical music, is probably our favorite artist we discovered in 2012. His previous album, Nostril, was a raging, ADHD mindfuck of a record, but Hallelujah promises to be even crazier, as the mad Frenchman known to his mom as Gautier Serre ups the ante with even more complex arrangements, aided and abetted by live guest musicians including members of Mayhem, John Zorn’s band and Vladimir Bozar ‘n’ ze Sheraf Orkestär. I’d never heard of that last one either, but they’re also from France and they sound like this. Oh, and Gautier’s pet chicken shows up a few times, too. It all bodes extremely well for the weirdness factor on Hallelujah, I’d say.

Igorrr’s label, Ad Noiseam, is previewing two full tracks, “Tout Petit Moineau” and “Vegetable Soup,” on their website, along with a few other snippets. But we’ll leave you with the tracklist and the official album trailer, which stars Igorrr’s mom. It makes me so fucking happy that over 10,000 people have watched this in just 10 days that I don’t even know what to do with myself.

Hallelujah tracklist:

1. Tout Petit Moineau
2. Damaged Wig
3. Absolute Psalm
4. Cicadidae
5. Vegetable Soup
6. Lullaby for a Fat Jellyfish
7. Grosse Barbe
8. Corpus Tristis
9. Scarlatti 2.0
10. Toothpaste
11. Infinite Loop

-> Get Hallelujah on Amazon.com

P.S. Shout-out to our buddy Ian Frost for sharing this blessed news with us. Guess we now know what to get you for Christmas, Ian!

The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble

It might not be obvious at first, but the distance between classical music and techno isn’t that great. Both are predominantly instrumental forms of music. Both layer sound in complex ways that go far beyond melody, or sometimes do away with melody altogether. Both think those avant-garde minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley are pretty dope. Techno and classical may play in different sandboxes, but they definitely share a shovel occasionally.

Still, the lengths Brandt Brauer Frick go to in order to combine the two genres seem a tad extreme. The first time we heard about these German cats, they were still pretty much building their minimal techno tracks the old-fashioned way: with lots of loops and programmed beats, albeit ones based mostly on acoustic sounds. But they were clearly interested in playing with people’s expectations of how such sounds are created; in the video for their track “Bop” (pictured above), they cloned themselves several times over to create an imaginary orchestra, playing the track’s hypnotically repetitive piano, percussion and even a well-timed rain stick with robotic precision.

But not content to stop there, BBF went ahead and created a ten-piece chamber orchestra called the (wait for it) Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble to recreate their tracks live, with no loops or programmed sounds at all. Even after watching two videos of the Ensemble in action, I still can’t decide if it’s a cool idea or not. I mean, on the one hand, it’s pretty damn impressive that these musicians—including a harpist, cellist, trombonist and whatever you call a tuba player (tubist?)—have the restraint, rhythmic sense and technical prowess required to produce the layered, percussive sounds of techno with mostly acoustic instruments (they sneak a Moog in there, but still). On the other hand, well, isn’t this what drum machines were invented for? I’m just not sure if it adds anything to my enjoyment of the music. It’s like watching a master sculptor carve an IKEA table.

But judge for yourself: Here’s a clip of the BBF Ensemble rehearsing a handful of tracks, including two (“Teufelsleiter” and “606 ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) from the first BBF album to feature the Ensemble, Mr. Machine, which is out on !K7 Records next month. What do you think…brilliant techno/classical fusion, or pointless technical exercise?

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Edmund Welles

Ever since Kronos Quartet tackled Hendrix back in the ’80s, classically trained musicians have been trying to prove that their cellos and oboes are more than just museum pieces, good for wheezing out dusty old “Concertos in B Flat Minor” and not much else. So they trot out string quartet versions of Radiohead, or even Lady Gaga medleys for bassoon, and…well, okay, the Lady Gaga bassoon ensemble, the Breaking Winds, is actually kinda cool. But they’re the exception. Most of this stuff just sounds like a slightly classed-up version of Muzak.

So when a friend and reader named Josh (sup, Josh?) suggested that we check out his buddy’s “heavy chamber music” quartet, we have to admit, we were skeptical. Classical musicians doing heavy metal covers? Apocalyptica covered that territory 15 years ago. Moving on.

Then we actually heard Edmund Welles—which is a band, not a person (the name is a Monty Python reference…I mean, not that I would know that without having to look it up…okay, maybe I would)—and, well, let’s just put it this way: The bass clarinet is an inherently weird instrument. Put four of them together in one group, and it sounds like a chorus of demon cats in heat fighting over a chicken bone. A demon chorus whose eerie caterwaulings just happen to occasionally assemble themselves into passages from Pixies and Nirvana songs.

Edmund Welles is the brainchild of one Cornelius Boots (his given name? if so, his parents rule), who first conceived of the idea of an all-bass clarinet ensemble back in 1996, the same year Apocalyptica was giving Metallica the all-cello treatment. Boots liked heavy metal, too, but he also liked alternative rock, jazz, traditional American folk music, and even good old fashioned baroque classical music, the stuff the bass clarinet was invented to play in the first place. And he was determined to combine all his affections into a single, pulsating mass of bass clarinet awesomeness. This was such a uniquely weird concept that Boots worked on his Edmund Welles project in solitude for several years before finally assembling enough fellow bass clarinetists to begin staging public performances.

In 2004, the group released its first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books, which Boots himself has described as “Muzak for conspiracy theorists,” “inspired by occult philosophy and heavy metal music.” In addition to an original multi-part movement with titles like “Asmodeus: The Destroyer, King of the Demons,” the album also featured covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Sepultura and (no, really) Spinal Tap. They’ve since released a second album of original material called Tooth & Claw, which has cover art that would’ve made the late great Ronnie James Dio smile. Is the bass clarinet the Woodwind of the Beast? Well, now that you mention it, that’s kinda what it sounds like.

Inevitably, Edmund Welles have gotten the most attention for their covers, especially a very solemn reading of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Their original stuff is weirder and ultimately much more interesting, but we’ll give you their version of “Creep” here in the hopes that it serves as a gateway to some of the harder stuff. Sort of the way your local Philharmonic does “The Nutcracker” every Christmas in the hopes that you’ll buy season tickets and come back for some Bartok and Stravinsky.

P.S. Did we mention that Cornelius Boots has also released an album of “sound, not music” called Sabbaticus Rex, featuring “spontaneous, sustained sound structuring” with Japanese flutes, gongs and Tuvan throat singing? Well, he has. Just thought we’d throw that in there.

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