One of the benefits of running a record label that caters to parochial tastes is the built-in audience for nearly every release. In the early ’90s, Sub Pop became identified with the grunge sound: Every album the Seattle company released rocked in a manner to which the hordes of neophyte flannel-rockers were accustomed. The same is true of Bristol, England’s whimsical Sarah Records, the indie-pop label that begot such geniuses as the Orchids and Field Mice. Fans still covet Sarah’s fey pop with a collector’s ferocity rarely seen outside the sports card market.
If a genre doesn’t catch the popular imagination, or quietly burns out as grunge did, its record label is in danger of collapsing with the fad. For a label to continue to grow as a business, it must offer variety. As the ’90s are about to turn six, Sub Pop has signed such decidedly unrocking groups as folk-pop duo the Spinanes and neo-lounge kitsch practitioners Combustible Edison, while Sarah Records, refusing to adopt a more catholic roster, has decided to fold with its hundredth release. Stalwarts like the Minneapolis-based scuzz-rock label Amphetamine Noise continue to release albums in their self-designated pigeonholes, but most have left niche marketing behind in pursuit of a bigger market share.
Kranky Records is another such stalwart. The Chicago label focuses its efforts on the wide-ranging and far-reaching realm known as space rock—droney, trance-inducing psychedelia with origins in the experimental German music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Can, NEU!, and Faust, as well as Brian Eno’s ambient works and the early efforts of Sonic Youth. Kranky releases include the low-fi, scratchy drones of Dissolve and the expansive, rhythmic psychedelia of Jessamine.
Kranky’s first signing was Labradford, a Richmond, Va., trio whose use of ancient keyboards, expansive guitar effects, and bottomless bass creates a world of primordial emotions and futuristic noise. Synthesist Carter Brown and guitarist Mark Nelson recorded the band’s first album, Pracision, as a duo in 1992, when the term “ambient music” was merely a buzz phrase circulated among Anglocentric music lovers who enthusiastically rode the post-techno chill-out wave.
These days, the term “ambient” is used to describe even the most abrasive music, thereby lessening its specificity and obscuring its descriptive implications. The difficult musings of Aphex Twin (Richard James) hardly fit Eno’s 1978 definition of the genre (“it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”). James’ collections, Selected Ambient Works, Volume I and Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, seem self-conscious attempts to subvert public expectations of ambient. While it’s tempting to toss Labradford’s drumless, hypnotic music into the ambient heap, the band’s compositions are more entrancing than collections of looped whale cries and underwater sound effects by such ambient gurus as Mixmaster Morris and Pete Namlook.
Pracision was based around subtle chord progressions, ebbing and flowing in time to its own internal rhythms. In adding bassist Robert Donne for its second album, A Stable Reference, Labradford seems to have acquiesced to a certain amount of structure within its free-floating compositions. But, in fact, Donne’s minimalist playing secures the band’s compositional foundations, freeing Brown and Nelson’s already menacing tornado of tones to swirl ever more violently around the bassist’s calm epicenter. Indeed, A Stable Reference is actually a denser, more abstract record than its predecessor.
“Mas” opens the album with a polytonal din, evoking a rumbling storm. Donne’s single bass note pounds ominously while Brown’s fizzy keyboards fight against Nelson’s twangy but haunting guitar. This improvisational thunder continues to reverberate until Brown engages his keyboards’ jet sounds, which gradually overwhelm the free-form tonalities. Nelson, who has proclaimed his love of surf music in interviews, doesn’t allow his guitar to become another synthesizer: He employs reverb and delay, but none of the smearing effects associated with drone music (phase, flange, distortion) are apparent. The guitarist’s atavistic style is as textured as it is transparent. Where “Mas” is unstructured, “El Lago” sets the tone for much of the album, its elegiac bass riff mooring the song’s leitmotif and eventually syncing with the guitar —the duo’s mannered pauses between riffs allow for ample keyboard coloring. “Balanced on Its Own Flame” and “Star City, Russia” follow a similar format, but Donne’s bass lines are sufficiently distinct to differentiate the songs.
Indie and dance bands who are drawn to analog keyboards by the hands-on malleability of their sound tend to make the most of the wacky oscillations and fractured sine waves that jump out of the rickety machines as soon as they’re powered up. On Pracision, the sole silly use of old technology was the vocoder heard on the novel tune “Thank You.” On A Stable Reference, Brown uses the sublime tones of his ancient keyboards as background textures rather than sound effects. A basic two-chord pattern is the foundation for “Streamlining,” but only on “Comfort” are synthesizers the lead instrument. Brown plays a clichéd rock ‘n’ roll riff (reminiscent of fellow sonorous synthers Suicide or Sonic Boom) that disintegrates in harmonic counterpoint with the bass.
One of the more striking things about Pracision was Nelson’s intrapsychic, impressionistic lyrics; a rarity among the space-case lyrics typical of the genre. On that album, Nelson used simple scenarios like describing everything that could happen as one walked from one room to another. On A Stable Reference, Nelson’s words are lost in the mix. But this submergence of Nelson’s words brings another element to Labradford’s compositions—his voice becomes just another sound, deepening the disc’s already mercurial moods. Nelson’s singing, like his guitar lines, follows the bass, creating a flowing, unisonant wave.
Labradford’s music is meant to pull you under rather than bowl you over. While listening closely to A Stable Reference is rewarding, disengaging to it is even more so.
An early press release for Bowery Electric breathlessly aligned the group with the apostles of Kraut-rock. But judging from its self-titled debut, the New York trio seems more like the spawn of summer 1991 and its U.K.-led shoegazers than Germany’s tireless experimenters.
The term “shoegazer” was coined to describe bands who preferred admiring their own footwear on stage to performing Jagger-esque calisthenics. But it was also the volume of these bands that set them apart: Digital-effect boxes that created blanketing distortion and synthetic dissonance smudged the outlines of the groups’ neo-folk songs, while breathy singers provided melody lines to cut through the saturating noise.
Unlike percussionists in most Kraut-rock bands—in which intensive rhythm was intrinsic to the composition—shoegazer percussionists tend to play behind the beat like standard rock drummers. On Bowery Electric, Michael Johngren occasionally approximates Can drummer Jaki Leibowitz’s propulsive style on “Next to Nothing,” “Long Way Down,” “Another Road,” and “Slow Thrills.” But on the whole, Johngren is locked into guitarist Lawrence Chandler and bassist Martha Schwendener’s compositions, which tend toward drugged-up languidness rather than the chaotic fluidity of the German space rockers they claim as influences.
Yet Bowery Electric’s compositions aren’t entirely 1991-style dirges (though the interplay between Chandler’s soft-spoken ruminations and Schwendener’s tiny peep is reminiscent of archetypal shoegazer band Slowdive). Songs like “Slow Thrills”—its dancey beat playing under buzz-saw guitars before giving way to a room-filling burst of noise midsong—hint at the group’s promise. “Another Road” recalls the way Labradford’s simple bass riffs slice through molasses-thick sound effects, but Bowery Electric has the added advantage of Johngren’s dubby rhythms. And the malaise created by “Out of Phase” is eerily intoxicating.
The hypnotic songs on Bowery Electric would benefit from the kind of parameter-busting surprises generated by the circuitous drone-rock of the English band Loop (Bowery Electric’s prime non-shoegazer reference point). Unlike Bowery Electric, Loop created one-riff tunes that constantly evolved during their six-minute life spans. But if it manages to overcome its static tendencies, Bowery Electric could be a welcome addition to Kranky’s family of neo-progressive bands.