Bow Gamelan Ensemble’s “Great Noises” getting reissued Nov. 5th

bow-gamelan-great-noises

Turns out our timing in featuring British avant-percussion group Bow Gamelan Ensemble last month was better than we realized. Not only are they the subject of a gallery retrospective in Scotland that opened this past weekend (and runs through Dec. 15th), they’re also about to see their groundbreaking 1988 album, Great Noises That Fill the Air, get a special 30th anniversary reissue via U.K. label/distributor Cold Spring. This will be the first time Great Noises has ever been released digitally or on CD, and I’m pretty sure the cassette and LP versions were long out of print, as well. So yeah, this is a big deal for fans of avant-garde sound installation art.

The Great Noises reissue comes out next Monday, Nov. 5th, but you can stream the whole thing (and pre-order your copy) right now via Bandcamp. Here’s opening track “Two ‘Marimbas’,” which gives you an idea of the percussive merriment that awaits:

For more information on Bow Gamelan and the reissue, or to pre-order the CD, visit Cold Spring’s online store.

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Bow Gamelan Ensemble

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A Javanese instrument made up of bells, chimes, gongs and various other percussive elements, the gamelan is one of the most elegant music-making devices ever created. The Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which existed in England from about 1983 to 1991, is considerably less elegant and doesn’t feature much you’d confuse with an actual gamelan. But the basic concept — using lots of different percussion to produce an elaborate tapestry of sound — is the same. Just with a lot more pyrotechnics.

Formed by percussionist Paul Burwell, performance artist Anne Bean (previously of tongue-in-cheek glam-rockers Moody and the Menstruators) and sculptor Richard Wilson (later famous for insane large-scale artworks like this one), Bow Gamelan specialized in creating site-specific, large-scale industrial art installations, often over water, upon which they would then perform semi-improvised musique concrète works featuring scrap metal, motors, air compressors and various other industrial noise-making devices. Their shows typically climaxed in explosions, fireworks and bursts of flame.

Bow Gamelan certainly weren’t the first or last group to use power tools and found objects as instruments, but they were among the most ambitious. Here, for example, is a 16-minute documentary about their 1987 work, Offshore Rig, which occupied a one-acre island on the Thames for several weeks as the Bow members and a team of helpers outfitted the island and several surrounding pontoons with oil drums, steam whistles, vacuum cleaners, a massive set of wind chimes made from 100 sheets of broken glass, and 3,000 pounds of pyrotechnics.

And here they along another section of the Thames, in Kent, performing a 10-hour piece on a set of concrete barges. As they banged on their bells, pipes, springs and barrels, they and their instruments gradually submerged in the rising tide.

One of the cool things that set Bow Gamelan Ensemble apart from other musique concrète ensembles was their fascination with water and its distortive effects on sound. Even performing indoors, they often found ways to incorporate water into the show, as in this piece called In C & Air that also used the stage floor itself as percussion by raising and slamming down planks of it via an elaborate pulley system.

Strictly speaking, Bow Gamelan — who took the “Bow” part of their name from the East London district where they formed — were more of a performance art project than a band. But they did release some of their “music” on cassette and LP, including this 1984 tape from the cassette magazine Audio Arts and a 1988 album called Great Noises That Fill the Air.

Some accounts of Bow Gamelan Ensemble have them breaking up in 1990, but I found several references to a cassette called Dancing With the Ghosts that appears to be a recording of a 1991 performance in Rome. I’m pretty sure this features a later version of the group that included only Burwell and a second percussionist called Z’ev. The original trio, plus Z’ev and several other performers, also reunited in 2004 for a one-off performance in a place called Margate Harbour, which judging from this video was a classic Bow Gamelan show, pyrotechnics and all.

Sadly, Burwell died in 2007 at the age of 57. But Bean and Wilson haven’t abandoned the project completely; in fact, if anything, they’ve been even more active, creating a very Bow Gamelan-like large-scale performance in Birmingham, England in late 2007 in his memory, and forming a new duo called W0B that’s carried on the Bow Gamelan tradition of exploring sound with unusual, sculptural assemblages like this one. Later this month, on Oct. 26th, they’ll premiere a new performance at the Cooper Gallery in Dundee, Scotland as part of a two-month retrospective of Bow Gamelan’s work. If any of you readers are planning to attend, please give us a report.

P.S. Our thanks to reader Thremnir for suggesting we add Bow Gamelan to the Weird List.

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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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The Verboden Boys

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Lots of punk bands go through members faster than they go through safety pins, but usually it takes them a decade or three to rack up truly impressive, Social Distortion-like numbers. The Verboden Boys, however, have amassed a small army of members in a much shorter span of time through a method far more intriguing than the usual drug overdoses and “creative differences”: They’re a franchise punk band, with chapters in cities all over the world.

Founded in 2015 by Dennis Tyfus, a Belgian artist, musician and head of punk label Ultra Eczema Records, and fellow musician Josh Plotkin, the original Verboden Boys chapter was based in Antwerp and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, played one gig — with Tyfus on “too loud vocals and synth” and Plotkin on drums — before breaking up. But fear not, for that one performance — all 14 minutes of it — lives on thanks to the Internet gateway to immortality that is YouTube.

Tyfus’ franchise concept behind Verboden Boys lives on, too — sort of.

Originally Tyfus laid down some ground rules each chapter had to follow: no songs longer than two minutes, all songs had to pull from the same list of titles (though beyond the titles, they could apparently sound like pretty much anything) and all chapters had to perform on the same day. Amazingly, he appears to have pulled off that last rule on May 18, 2015, the date of the Antwerp chapter’s first (and only?) performance. A Verboden Boys playlist on YouTube, put together by the Tapeways label, is full of performances by other Verboden Boys chapters apparently playing on that same day, mostly elsewhere around Antwerp (the Deune and Borgerhout chapters) but also in Melbourne, Montreal and, of all places, Easthampton, Massachusetts. I spent three years in grad school not far from Easthampton and I can assure you that even though the Pixies got their start in that corner of the world, it is one of the least punk-rock places you can imagine. So rock the fuck on, Easthampton chapter of The Verboden Boys. You’re like a punk-rock Alamo out there amidst the leafy splendor of rural New England.

Since 2015, there hasn’t been much activity in Verboden land — with one notable exception. Earlier this year, The Verboden Boys’ Belfast chapter released an album called Band From Reality (The Complete Demos) that takes the basic template of Tyfus’ original — shouty, over-driven synth-punk — and amps it up roughly 5,000 percent, until almost every track is just a few seconds of shrieked vocals, short-circuited synths, blast beats and random noise. The whole thing can be listened to in just over 17 minutes — or seven if you skip “Never Die,” the 10-minute closing track that’s basically an ambient, post-coital comedown from the violent ear-fucking of tracks like “Homeless With a Drum Machine” and “Nazi Synthesizer.” Among the things they’ve tagged it with on Bandcamp are “terrorcore” and “synthetic hypergrind,” both of which are pretty apt descriptors.

Verboden Boys (Belfast Chapter) were introduced to us by Chris Storey from Doggy Bag Records, the label that had the balls to unleash this stuff upon an unsuspecting populace. Even Storey wasn’t quite sure what had become of all the other chapters, but noted that, “to my knowledge, the Belfast chapter is the most unhinged.” We’d have to agree.

If you’re interested in starting a new Verboden Boys chapter of your own — well, you can probably just go ahead and do it. Asking permission isn’t very punk, now is it? But if you want to be all up-and-up about it, you could try sending a message to Dennis Tyfus via his label as ultraeczema@hotmail.com. Who knows? Maybe if enough new chapters spring into action, he’ll even revive the Antwerp original.

[Note: This post originally neglected to mention Josh Plotkin as co-creator of the Verboden Boys concept. Sorry, Josh!]

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Reynols

Reynols

To our South American readers: ¡Hola! How’s it hanging? Except for Brazil, we’ve kinda ignored you guys, and for that, we are sorry. You have your fair share of weirdos, too…starting with Argentina’s Reynols.

Reynols was started in 1993 by a drummer with Down syndrome named Miguel Tomasin and his two music teachers, Alan Courtis and Roberto Conlazo. They also had a fourth member named Christian Dergarabedian early on, and at some point Roberto’s brother Patricio got involved, so most photos and videos of the band show four members. According to Courtis and Conlazo, Tomasin introduced himself to them by saying, “Hello, I’m the world’s most famous drummer.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Inspired by Tomasin’s unique way of looking at the world, Reynols make music that most people probably wouldn’t consider music. Their first album, Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat (Gordura vegetal Hidrogenada), was a “dematerialized CD,” which is another way of saying that it was sold as an empty CD case with nothing in it. Because it doesn’t exist, Courtis and Conlazo explain, it’s everywhere. “Everybody has that record, even people who haven’t been born yet,” Courtis told one interviewer. “Napoleon has that record, Plato has the record, Jim Morrison has the record.”

They’ve also released Chickens Symphony for 10,000, a field recording done inside a chicken coop, and Blank Tapes, an album consisting entirely of tape hiss, from tapes the band claims they collected from all over the world. “The cheap tapes sound better than the expensive ones,” says Conlazo. “TTK tapes from Singapore. Maxwell tapes (not Maxell!) from Taiwan. The idea was to use all the possibilities, a lot of different frequencies.”

They’ve also made “music” based on the sound of banging things against the Eiffel Tower and gravestones of famous people. “They’re all very different. For example the Oscar Wilde statue sounds incredible. We played it with roses. We use different things to play each grave.”

When they make music in a more conventional band configuration, it’s still pretty weird, especially because Tomasin does all the vocals, wailing in a made-up language about a parallel universe called Minecxio. His bandmates accompany him with detuned guitars, effects pedals, feedback and the occasion ram’s horn. It’s trippy and noisy. But mostly noisy.

Weird though they may be, Reynols was a pretty successful cult band for about a decade, releasing a ton of records on labels from all over the world. They toured the U.S and Europe at least once, although Tomasin couldn’t travel with them to Europe for reasons that are unclear, so they brought along a big yellow poster of his face instead.

Oh, and they were also once nearly arrested for a street performance in which they played guitars plugged into pumpkins. Pumpkins don’t actually make very good amps, so the guitars didn’t make much noise, but apparently the authorities felt that the performance was “setting a bad example for the tourists.”

In 2004, Reynols announced they were breaking up. Since then, Alan Courtis has released tons more experimental music on his own, while Miguel Tomasin and Rob Conlazo have continued to work together occasionally, but seem to be much less active. Someone made a documentary about them in 2004 called Buscando a Reynols, but as far as we can tell, that was pretty much the last time anyone’s done anything to document the group or its members.

We’ll leave you with a live recording of Reynols in Chicago from 2001, which someone was kind enough to upload so posterity could hear how completely batshit these guys were. If anyone knows more about the Reynols story post-2004, let us know and we’ll update this post. Oh, and many thanks to reader MrAgalloch, who suggested we take the plunge down the Reynols rabbit hole.

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  • Reynols interview from Paris Transatlantic, March 2003
  • Reynols interview from Furious.com, updated Jan. 2004 with announcement that “Reynols’ life-cycle has come to its natural end”

Army of Gay Unicorns wants you to start 2015 “Concussed and Terrified”

Army of Gay Unicorns

Since the traditional way to start a New Year, at least around my house, is with lost keys and a raging hangover, I figured we should start off 2015 here at Weird Band HQ with a track that evokes Jan. 1st in all its skull-splitting glory. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the aptly named “Concussed and Terrified,” the latest cold shower of noise from our old pal Richard, aka Army of Gay Unicorns. If you by some miracle do NOT already have a hangover, crank this one up and it’s the next worst thing.

Happy New Year, weirdos!

BiS Kaidan

BiS Kaidan

Ever since we added Babymetal and their J-pop-meets-death-metal steez to the Weird List earlier this year, a bunch of you have written in to point out that actually, Babymetal aren’t even the most extreme example of adorable headbanging Japan has to offer. For truly insane idol-meets-noise Japanese weirdness, we have to go to a short-lived project called BiS Kaidan.

BiS Kaidan was a collaboration between an idol J-pop girl group called BiS (short for “Brand-new Idol Society”) and the veteran noise band Hijōkaidan, who have been churning abrasive noise collages like this one since the late ’70s, occasionally accompanied live by smashing up equipment, pissing onstage and throwing garbage at the audience. (Japanese noise bands, in case you’re not familiar, do not fuck around. The Gerogerigegege used to jerk off onstage and eat each other’s shit, and an early version of the Boredoms called Hanatarash, during one show, once took out the back wall of the theater with a backhoe.) BiS already had a bit a bad-girl rep for mixing hard-rock guitars into their music and making music videos like this one:

So it was a match made in heaven. Or hell, depending on your tolerance level for listening to the dog-whistle shrieks of Japanese girls over guitar feedback and caffeinated punk-pop.

BiS Kaidan were only active for about two years, from late 2012 until this past May. Shortly after they disbanded, BiS broke up, as well, in a move that’s pretty typical of idol groups, I guess, since hardly any of them stay together once the members exit their teens. Wish somebody would tell American and British teeny-bopper groups about this tradition. I saw Take That on The Graham Norton Show the other night and those guys are definitely way past their expiration date.

During their brief run, BiS Kaidan played a few shows that, based on the YouTube videos we’ve seen, look like a cross between a GWAR concert and a pillow fight at a Japanese girls’ boarding school. Aborable and horrifying. Adorifying!

While the BiS ladies were wreaking havoc with Hijōkaidan, they were continuing to produce their own, increasingly out-there music and videos. We’ll leave you with “STUPiG,” which is like some kind of cyber-horror cross between Dir En Grey and Lady Gaga set to the most headache-inducing hardstyle EDM you’ve ever heard blasting from a Honda Civic with a street racing spoiler. Not even Miley Cyrus went this scorched-earth on her cutesy teen-pop roots.

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