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Throbbing Gristle - Gristleism

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Artist: Throbbing Gristle

Album: Gristleism

Label: Industrial

Review date: Aug. 27, 2010

We all had to figure that it was time for an upgrade to Buddha Machine technology. Originally invented as a way for Buddhists to keep prayer in their lives, it’s a simple MP3 player, with not a lot of storage capacity or flashiness about it. It’s a playback device, and commensurate with the price of such a limited, showcase technology.

Independent music first got a taste of this Eastern doodad with FM3’s Buddha Machine, containing nine ambient soundloops that the listener could turn on or off, up or down, listen to via heaphones with the supplied jack, or power with batteries or a wall wart AC adapter. The notion of the device’s internal speaker, housed in a colorful shell, instilled these loops with a great deal of their charm; we weren’t looking for high fidelity here, and we didn’t get it. Rather, the very notion of this device — one where we weren’t sure which track was going to play when we turned it on, nor could we easily select an offering from the two-position plastic switch which played a different sound file — lent itself to the listening experience. FM3 shaped their music within certain confines to which listeners were happy to subject themselves. It could only be played a certain way, and the sonic quality of the speaker output could warp the source material into something different when turned up to full volume (and truth be told, this could never be replicated with its eventual release as an iPhone app). Some design issues were adjusted in the second iteration of this device, including branded packaging to replace the stock boxes the first one came in.

These ideas were further strangled by the Flingco label of Chicago, whose Black Box device transposed plangent ambience for dark despair and black metal leanings. Shaped like a tombstone, I was met with the endless repetition of the phrase “Today I will not kill myself” when I first powered it up. The materials used in the package seemed to work against the qualities of the sound samples, created by WRNLRD and other artists on the label, offering a distorted and highly troublesome time to whoever was grim enough to switch it on.

The members of Throbbing Gristle, ever the innovators of ambient torture, unveiled the Gristleism box last year. Designed with the assistance of FM3’s Christiaan Virant, it is by far the most successful and interesting of any of these players to hit the market. It’s a squat, drab-looking handheld plastic box on its own, boasting a higher storage capacity and more loops than other devices of its kind have been able to offer. Gristleism comes to you in elaborate, die-cut paper packaging, held together by tabs and slots and adorned with tactile, surface-color inks (it’s available in TG’s signature colors of black, red and chrome).

On its own, the device plays back 13 loops, containing excerpts from some of the outfit’s best known works (“20 Jazz Funk Greats,” “Heathen Earth”) along with a couple of newer offerings. There’s no headphone jack or alternate power source, limiting the ways in which these loops can be heard. Truth be told, it’s a bit harsh and underwhelming when left on its own, but put the device back into its package, and the paper itself further obfuscates the output, and adds a level of design that helps its cause tremendously. Gristleism’s loops reset in order when the device is powered on or off, and can be cycled through with the touch of a button on top. There’s also pitch control, which further distorts the signal up to a half-octave in either direction.

Those who might have written off these devices as a novelty might want to reconsider Gristleism. I’ve left it on while working, and must admit that an infinite slog through the nauseating sirens and churning dread vis a vis a section of “Hamburger Lady” took on mantra-like qualities that the original lacked, and really changed the atmosphere of my surroundings. It provides an experience that forces the listener into a path of the artist’s making, while offering enough playback options to customize said experience beyond the scope of a traditional TG recording. While it still lacks the range of options of any lock-groove LP (I’m thinking of RRR-500, or WFMU’s Running in Place marathon premium in particular), it is one of the more unique reworkings of a group’s material to come down the pike in some time.

Furthermore, in a move that would provide even greater discomfort, Throbbing Gristle has provided information on how to circuit-bend and tweak the device, which can be found at http://gristleism.blogspot.com. Fab and kinky, indeed.

By Doug Mosurock

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