The Logic of Sound - Excepter's KA
In a recent review of Excepter’s debut LP, KA, the reviewer wrote that he was incapable of explaining what exactly was going on in the music found on the record. Apparently, he could not explain Excepter’s creative process from psychosomatic (inter-)action in space-time to recorded document. The very existence of the information found on KA appeared as mystery to this particular writer. I initially doubted his claim, but, after acquiring a copy, I experimented with KA each day in a manner that, I believe, would have pleased Aleister Crowley, Dr. Leary and Robert Anton Wilson – measured doses of Jameson, marijuana, yoga and cocaine. In time, I, too, adopted opinions similar to this writer’s. KA eventually fucked my psychosomatic unity so thoroughly that I intuitively felt the only language available to help explain my experiments had to be found between the pages of such books as Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life?, Rudy Rucker’s Infinity and the Mind, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Michael Guillen’s Bridges to Infinity and Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology. In 2004, these books say more about modern art than practically all the underground and mainstream kultur critics extant.
The logic of the sound-model found on KA (as well as chunks of art and sound-models by such modern freaks as Wolf Eyes, Mammal, Dearraindrop, Khanate, Frankie Martin, Meerk Puffy, Nautical Almanac, Animal Collective, NNCK, Sightings, Souther Salazar, Mouthus and Sunburned Hand of the Man) appears to reflect the statistical-based uncertainty of quantum mechanics rather than the essence-based “either/or” dichotomy of Aristotelian logic. As Wilson writes in his aforementioned Quantum Psychology, “This may surprise many, including the physicists who claim that quantum uncertainty only applies to the sub-atomic world and that in ordinary affairs ‘we still live in a Newtonian universe.’ This book dares to disagree with that accepted wisdom; I take exactly the opposite position. My endeavor here will attempt to show that the celebrated ‘problems’ and ‘paradoxes’ and the general philosophical enigmas of the quantum world appear also in daily life.”
Simply asking what Excepter’s music is reveals their innovation as well as the obsolescence of Aristotelian logic.
Q: Is it free-improv?
And so on… At any given moment in space-time, Excepter’s music appears to occupy a ratio of these competing polarities, but it never possesses just a single fundamental essence. The point, I truly hope, is snapping into focus. But, before we delve deeper into post-quantum underground punk-jammers, lets shift into a more traditional “Excepter’s KA reminds reviewer of this, this and this analysis”. So, you gain some understanding of what KA seemingly sounds kind of like.
Excepter are a five piece from New York City creating deeply psychedelic mantras and electrically pulsating meditations using mystically moaning voices (male and female), synthesizers, sampling, percussion, harmonica, programming and various effects. Excepter generate nearly every track using live sequencing and live recording (straight to stereo) with limited editing. Think The Grateful Dead’s Anthems of the Sun with levers, knobs and buttons instead of strings, organs and picks. Think free-folk and the dance floor grafted on the “sub-atomic” level. I recently stumbled across a very loose approximation of Excepter’s sound while reading Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, written by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. When describing the mixing style of legendary New York disco DJ, Francis Grasso, they write, “another of his signature mixes was a blend of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ with the drum break of Chicago Transit Authority’s ‘I’m a Man’. He sent Robert Plant’s primal moans surging over the top of a sea of Latin percussion.” The thought that needs extraction here is the concept of the swirling, moaning middle section of “Whole Lotta Love” -- Bonham’s persistent hi-hat establishing pace -- interwoven with clusters of horn stabs. Now please trade the horn stabs for short bursts of deep-focus digital snaps, chirps and squeals, and filter this equation through a production style as psychosomatically disorienting and volatile as Cabaret Voltaire’s Mix-Up and Laser Temple of Bon Matin’s Bullet In2 Mesmer’s Brain. Impressive, right? But, unlike the inner-mind catacombs that early-C.V. and the mighty Temple call home, Excepter remain of the surface just like electronic-based dance music. (I use the word “surface” with caution here because in Aristotelian logic “surface” belongs to the “surface/depth” dichotomy, but I am not implying that Excepter lack depth or are superficial. They simply establish their sound at the very edge of the speaker cones.) Excepter appear to consciously want to create majestically virtual sound-scapes vaguely similar to fellow New Yorkers, Black Dice. Both groups seek beauty and mystery through experimentation in an age when most experimental groups are incapable of expressing nothing more than solipsism and inchoate rage. Thus, Excepter are both razor-sharp stylists and full-throttled psychosomatic freak-out addicts the way Miles Davis was during On the Corner. Oh, and I almost forgot, toss side one of The Soft Machine’s Volume Two and the entire Faust discography into the mix.
The aforementioned comparisons establish Excepter’s basic sound, but how that sound moves through space-time needs to be explained in some detail. The following screed is a very general history of 20th century underground sound-models that I simplified in order to stress the aspects vital to Excepter’s development: Over the past thirty years, music of the Western world has divided into a breadth of sub-genres (The invention of the sub-genre was a temporary way to preserve the slowly dying Aristotelian concept of essence.), but two basic streams that, in their respective ways, have exploded the Platonic pop sound-model, are free-improv (jazz, [some] psych, noise, etc.) and grooved-based jams (funk, dub, kraut-rock,[some] psych, disco, post-punk, house, techno, etc.). The former attempted to destroy pop-form through spontaneous musical expression, and the latter attempted to destroy pop-form by stressing rhythm over melody/harmony. For a long time, attempts to fuse these two streams into a new music never truly succeeded. Writer Nick Tosches addressed their supposed antithetical nature in a review of Miles Davis’ autobiography. Of Davis, he writes, “his records for years have been an attempt in…fusing high jazz with street-level R&B. It was a dream that didn’t work for Archie Shepp, who tried it in 1970 on recordings such as ‘Stick ‘Em Up’. It is a dream that can never work, for, since their parting in the forties, the musics have become oil and water.” (Note: I agree with Tosches that many jazz-R&B hybrids failed, but I do not include Miles Davis’.) There goes Tosches using Aristotelian logic –- “oil and water”. These early fusions of disparate sound-models were flawed not because both models were incompatible but because these musicians, in their space-time, perceived them as incompatible. They lived in a world still dominated by Aristotelian “either/or”. The goal then became to alter this perception of the world –- destroy the “either/or” that prevents new super sound-models from emerging. And this is exactly what Faust and King Tubby, among others, were in the midst of doing by the mid-’70s. In fact, both of their respective cultures played pivotal roles in smashing Aristotelian sound-models. Faust and their kraut-rock peers spawned a succession of “quantum-sympathizing” movements such as die neue deutsche welle, industrial, body-music, hardcore-techno and minimal-techno, and King Tubby, Lee Perry and their peers helped spawn (in- and directly) dancehall, ragga, disco, house, hip-hop, jungle, etc.
Also active in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s were the brilliant record companies releasing field recordings of non-occidental sound-models: Ocora, Smithsonian Folkways, Nonesuch Explorer, Lyrichord, etc. Although many free musicians such as Shepp and Don Cherry listened to these recordings and experimented with non-Western rhythms, I believe they, as well as many other artists and intellectuals at the time, failed to comprehend that a non-Aristotelian logic of equal importance organized these foreign sound-models. They all appear too caught up in back-to-Africa politics or championing the imagined innocence of tribal culture. But, when afro-beat musicians sculpted funk, jazz and R&B to fit into their native sound-models it was tantamount to fortune telling. It would still be a few more years before underground musicians (This Heat, The Homosexuals and later the Sun City Girls) would be prepared to tackle these non-Western sound-models on their own terms. We will be addressing field recordings again, but now time for a three-part science-music metaphor because we still need to reconcile free-improv with groove-based sound-models before we get back to post-quantum Excepter.
1) The Greeks created the rational number-line. It consists of whole numbers (1,2,3,4…) and fractions that can be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers (3:2, 2:7, 5:1...). It is classic Greek thought and when combined with Aristotelian logic produces their belief that the world is balanced, ordered and static Acropolis-style. The rational number-line appears similar to most groove-based occidental sound-models up through the late-‘90s because most of it is constructed along this line -- even the more extreme manifestations such as the incredible Lightning Bolt. (Note: Henry Flynt is so post-quantum, and his theory on Appalachian string music begs me to eventually revise this section.) In this way, we can see how even African-American groove-based sound-models, however (brilliantly) turned over, under, sideways and down (as found on James Brown’s Love Power Peace: Live at The Olympia, Paris, 1971), are still based more on Aristotelian logic and balance than any sound-models found on field-recordings of African music. However, the pivotal role R&B, funk and disco played in helping create the new super sound-model is incalculable.
2) One day in the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras failed to find the exact length of a particular diagonal using the mathematical vocabulary of the rational number-line. The measurement he obtained was not a whole number or a ratio of whole numbers. Hence, the birth of irrational numbers – random (but not arbitrary) numbers that always fall in between rational numbers. And for a hell of a long time, mathematicians viewed irrational numbers as a necessary evil; they lurked outside the rational number-line. The history of irrational numbers -- I feel -- works well as a metaphor for the history of free-improv. For years, many critics and musicians viewed free-improv sound-models as absolutely spontaneous, chaotic, random and above form and structure simply because Aristotelian definitions of form and structure could not explain them. In the ‘60s and early-‘70s free-improv sound-models played a huge role in challenging these narrow definitions of form and structure but they quickly became nebulous and phantom-like musical processes perpetually escaping critical scrutiny and retreating into spiritual hokum, which ironically became their downfall. In retrospect, I do not hear unconditional freedom or the “ultimate truth” or any other metaphysical essence in Coltrane’s music; I hear higher and higher orders of fluid structure. (Note: Sun Ra and Albert Ayler are so post-quantum.)
3) Finally in the 1870s, the respective accomplishments of two mathematicians, Richard Dedekind and Georg Cantor, created an acceptable way of bringing the rational numbers and irrational numbers together, creating the more continuously flowing real-number super-line. Of course, no single genius performed such a defining feat for modern underground music, but a slow fusion of groove-based sound-models and free-improv sound-models into one super sound-model had been occurring. The minimalists of the ‘60s (LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Tony Conrad, etc.) built a bridge to Indian sound-models as well as laid down a blueprint for a super sound-model that other musicians would later animate with movement and aggressive musicianship. And, of course, Sonic Youth’s archetypal sound-model found on any pre-Daydream Nation release -- fusing no wave, German industrial, psych, fire music, and punk – brought free-improv and groove-based sound-models closer together than anyone else to date. But, it appears the evolution of techno and house into IDM (for lack of a better term) and other more extreme progeny, such as the Ambush, Tigerbeat6, Planet Mu, Irritant, History of the Future and Position Chrome imprints, played a major role in establishing the field on which this new super sound-model would finally emerge in the ‘90s. Firstly, techno-based musicians asked us to pay attention to sound on a “sub-atomic” level. They really forced me to examine, and lose myself in, brief snippets of sound in ways akin to grabbing an ordinary pebble and peering into its near-microscopic textures until they begin resembling mountain ranges –- Brian Andrew’s unified field theory. (After spending the past two years listening to early ‘80s industrial and power electronics, it is now apparent how influential both were on techno-based sound-models of the ‘90s.) Secondly, since IDM musicians wanted to transcend the “dance-beat dogma” of techno- and house-based sound-models (just like free-improv wanted to transcend the Platonic song form), and since these musicians created sound-models using computers then, by nature, IDM musicians defined the random, a-rhythmic and spontaneous appearance of free-improv sound-models using the same language as ravers -- mathematics. If ‘60s-minded free-improv musicians defined their rebellion in metaphysical terms then techno-based musicians defined their rebellion in phenomenological ones. Now instead of two incompatible number-lines, or two incompatible sound-models, we have one super sound-model wherein music can be created using a perpetually mutating ratio of the polarities mentioned in the introduction. Both, the teenager’s dance beats and the college nerd’s head-trip, belong to one super-model; both, mainstream sound-models and underground sound-models, belong to one super-model. Hell, replace “mainstream” and “underground” with any alleged dichotomy and the implications become abundantly clear. Toss “monism” and “pluralism” in there. In much more general terms, we are talking about modern humanity’s growing “impatience” with Aristotelian logic, dialectical thought patterns, and the concept of unalterable essences. Humanity is discovering new ways to communicate and create art via a fully internalized systemic logic. And this is not restricted to cyber-nerds who subscribe to Wired. Wolf Eyes, who do not use laptops, have developed one of the most complex sound-model producing super-organisms to date. They are young musicians possessing minds fully based on systemic logic –- not a trace of Aristotle left in their punk-jammers.
In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, both the Basic Channel and Kompakt techno-based labels, as well as musicians like Thomas Brinkmann, released a slew of twelve-inches expressing the rhythmic capabilities of this new super sound-model. Coinciding with a burgeoning interest in these minimal techno/house musicians, a renewed interest in vintage field recordings emerged. But, this time around, musicians were not listening for the imaginary primal innocence of the untainted third-world tribesman. They discovered that the sound-models of minimal techno and vintage field recordings were both based on post-quantum logic. Occidental man has finally learned what their “primitive colonies” knew since the dawn of time –- pluralism and monism appear to co-exist. (It just took us a long, long time to put it all back together again.) Suddenly, new sound-models systemically combining no wave, psych, ‘60s minimalism, pop, techno, free jazz, kraut-rock, folk, Japanese noise, minimal techno, Boredoms and African rhythms have exploded across the United States, which brings us back to Excepter. Their version of the post-quantum super sound-model is a kick-ass listening experience and a total nod to the future –- sounding like watery minimal techno -- while also feeling like an ancient field recording of ritual chants from the lost continent. And like Wolf Eyes, the Excepter super-organism is the more highly evolved offspring of the super-organism that Throbbing Gristle displayed on Heathen Earth. Yes, the TG super-organism did possess a beating heart and humming nervous system but it remained static. The Excepter super-organism, however, reflects the continuity of the total living experience – irregular/regular heartbeat, rumbling digestive tract, expanding/contracting lungs, humming nervous system, etc., all endlessly percolating, bending and pitch-shifting, as it moves through space-time.
Hopefully, I did my job and you just acquired a general idea of what Excepter sound similar to. On other hand, the primary drawback to comparative analysis in the age of digital sampling (technology that Excepter utilizes) is that many of us possess minds that operate like Xerox machines and Adobe Photoshop. (Take me for example; half this review is quotations.) We clumsily mix-n-match with massive chunks of information that are detail-for-detail facsimiles of facsimiles of facsimiles and so on. Is this not the age of “retroduction”?
Fortunately, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, (inadvertently) wrote the perfect metaphor for the artistic process, as practiced by Excepter, in the post-quantum age. Dawkins writes, “Living things, of course, were never designed on drawing boards. But they do go back to fresh beginnings. They make a clean start in every generation. Every new organism begins as a single cell and grows anew. It inherits the ideas of ancestral design, in the form of the DNA programs, but it does not inherit the physical organs of its ancestors. It does not inherit its parent’s heart and remold it into a new (and possibly improved) heart. It starts from scratch, as a single parent’s heart, to which improvements may be added.”
By Justin F. Farrar