Bull of Heaven

Bull-of-Heaven

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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Glenn Branca

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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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L.A.Drones!

L.A.Drones!
Photo by Amy Darling

Another Weird Band Poll is in the books here at Weird Band HQ, and the band poppin’ bottles this time is from right here in our hometown of Los Angeles. So give an imaginary high-five to L.A.Drones! I wasn’t shouting, by the way…their name has an exclamation point at the end. Just thought I’d clear that up.

L.A.Drones! (not shouting, I swear) are a synth duo who perform wearing black bandit masks because one version of their name, “ladrones,” means “thieves” in Spanish. And because, as they told us, “we steal samples from the music we like.” I thought that was pretty much every synth band these days, but maybe L.A.Drones! are more thievish than most.

In another version of their name, it means “Los Angeles drones,” which could be a reference to the droning sound of their music, or the fact that we Angelenos increasingly live in a police surveillance state. Seriously, the cops here have drones. Which are supposedly not in use at the moment, but if there’s one thing every halfway intelligent American just learned in the wake of all that shit that went down in Ferguson, it’s that we should not trust our local police forces with all their new high-tech gadgets. You may as well give a box of fireworks to a bunch of 10-year-old boys and say, “Now you be sure to find a grown-up and get permission before you light these.”

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. L.A.Drones! So far, the duo of Vulcanito and Tormentas Gonzalez has only released one track, an ass-shaking little jam called “Horrible Dreams,” which you can watch in the performance clip below and also buy on Bandcamp for less than a cup of gas station coffee.

When we asked if they had any other songs, Vulcanito explained that L.A.Drones! really has to be experienced live. “Horrible Dreams” is just the first part of a 45-minute “capsule” of music called “The Dreamlike World of the Midnight Walker,” which they never perform the same way twice, and any versions of it they release online will just be recorded live in the studio. They’re working on other “capsules” of music, each of which will be played at a different BPM. “Midnight Walker” is at 127 BPM, apparently.

Here’s a live clip of the second part of “The Dreamlike World of the Midnight Walker,” which is called “Give Up.” Musically, they’re not the weirdest band we’ve ever featured, maybe. But I do dig that their music is kind of freeform and dancey at the same time, and the whole concept of an electronic act that never plays anything the same way twice. Some of the “live” dance music acts Andy’s dragged me to over the years should really take a page from that playbook.

So congrats again to L.A.Drones! for winning the poll. I believe that makes them the first L.A. band ever to win a Weird Band Poll. About damn time somebody represented!

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Weird of the Day: Dancing Deadlips, “Imaginarium”

Dancing Deadlips

We just got an email from Dee, the mysterious Polish lady behind Dancing Deadlips, asking, “Are you still interested in weird drone ambient?” Sorry, Dee, we’re more into Japanese synth-punk these days. Kidding! Of course we’re still interested in weird done ambient. What kind of weird music blog would we be without sharing the occasional tune that resembles some noxious vapor seeping up from the bowels of the earth?

Dancing Deadlips’ latest is a 20-minute mini-album called Imaginarium. It consists of a single, atmospheric track that sounds like it was recorded while dragging something heavy through a graveyard. Check it out.

Weird of the Day: Andy the Doorbum, “Evocation: The Beast of Change”

Andy the Doorbum

For some reason, most of the really weird shit people are sending us these days is from North Carolina. Turns out there’s more to the Tarheel State than college hoops and vinegary barbecue.

The latest weirdo from the state that also gave us Your Fuzzy Friends, Surgical Vacations and Weird Band Poll contenders Emily Brontësaurus is a redneck singer-songwriter name of Andy Fenstermaker, who goes by the nom de weird of Andy the Doorbum. Most of Andy’s earlier stuff, as far as we can tell, is more quirky than weird, in sort of a Mountain Goats meets Tom Waits way. But he went off the fucking deep end with his latest video, “Evocation: The Beast of Change,” which we understand is the first track off his coming-soon album The Fool.

Not sure when The Fool drops, but he’s got a sold-out record release show this Friday, so it must be any day now. To hear more of his stuff, visit his Bandcamp page.

P.S. Our thanks to reader Eel for sending the “Evocation” video our way. You haunt our dreams, Eel.

Weird of the Day: Gnaw Their Tongues, “Destroying Is Creating”

 

Gnaw Their Tongues

Sometimes our readers remind me of my cat. They show up on my doorstep with the remnants of something gross and decaying in their jaws, but they do it as a love offering. I’m pretty sure it was in that spirit that reader XIC left a link to the Gnaw Their Tongues video below on our Submit a Band page.

Gnaw Their Tongues is a black metal/drone/noise project created by a guy named Mories who describes himself on his Bandcamp page as a “demon channeler.” After listening to “Destroying Is Creating” and a few other tracks, we think he may be telling the truth.

If you feel like diving deeper into Mories’ pit of despair, check out his website.

Weird Live Review: Author and Punisher

Author and Punisher gear

In our dystopian future, when the machines take over and we humans are forced to live in abandoned subway tunnels, our new cyborg overlords are gonna have massive raves in ruined sports arenas, where they’ll blast Author & Punisher out of speaker stacks mounted atop piles of human skulls. This is ambient/industrial drone metal for Terminators, played on machines that appear to be just a few microchips away from bidding us “Hasta la vista, baby” and cranking the bass up till our internal organs turn to jelly.

Under his Author & Punisher nom de drone, Tristan Shone records and performs music made entirely on homemade instruments that look like a steampunk fusion of exercise equipment and a B-movie mad scientist’s lab. Percussion emanates from a massive side-mounted piston made of cranks and tank treads; vocals echo forth from gas masks and lunatic asylum neck restraints. Even an otherwise traditional set of keyboards gets mounted to a Tim Burtonesque set of pipes and levers that Shone maneuvers into place with the grim yet frantic determination of an axe murderer trying to drag a body down the basement stairs. It’s sort of like watching the Willy Wonka of industrial music; every song reveals a new mind-boggling toy, an Everlasting Gobstopper of skin-crawling noise and organ-liquefying bass.

At first it all seems a bit gimmicky, but there’s a raw, visceral quality to Shone’s music that transcends the machinery. He’s especially compelling at coming up with cool new ways to manipulate his voice. At one point, he appeared to be just throwing his head back and making angry faces while twisting the knobs of a handheld device that emitted a series of guttural roars; then it became clear that the device was attached to some kind of microphone or vibration sensor strapped to his throat, and those guttural roars were coming from him. At the end of the song, he thanked the whooping crowd, except it came out sounding more like a caveman grunt: “Hhhunku.” High-tech machinery aside, the components of Shone’s music are primitive: grinding drones, pounding beats, an anguished human voice.

Author and Punisher at Echoplex

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We saw Author & Punisher this past Sunday night at the Echoplex here in Los Angeles. To see the rest of his January tour dates, click here.