Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM041 Hot Sugar

AEM041 Hot Sugar

Nick Koenig, for one of his new songs, made a field recording of the wind, mapped the sound to a keyboard, and played out a melody on the breeze. OK Pocahontas. But seriously, this found-sound technique—which extends throughout Koenig aka Hot Sugar’s oeuvre—deserves some attention. Not in the sense that these kinds of excavations are new: over half-a-century’s worth of art music experimentalists and Japanoise terrorists have found ample sonic uses for everything from vacuum cleaners to plastic surgery procedures. What makes Hot Sugar interesting, however, is not the aesthetic extremism or aggressive anti-musicality of someone like, say, Merzbow, but rather the prettiness, catchiness, even humanism this artist extracts from these instrumental (but not instrument) materials. In the world of outre industrio-acoustic studies, this kind of pop-smithing amounts, ironically, to the opposite of conventionality, a length of particularly percussive copper piping swung at the hydrahead of No Fun conservatism. In Hot Sugar’s mellotron, tunefulness becomes radical.

I draw this parallel between Koenig and some of the more esoteric examples of tape-n-scrape not because the two sound anything alike, but because the connection shows that the term “noise music” is, and perhaps always was, kind of meaningless. Hot Sugar’s style, despite resembling some kind of crossbreed of 70s blaxploitation soundtracks, ambient house, and 8-bit video game themes, is nonetheless akin, at least in practice, to Einstürzende Neubauten tape-looping a crate of plates breaking in a dank German warehouse. But where Industrial purists misused machinery to create literal, albeit borderline unlistenable, portraits of urban decay, Hot Sugar solders the same base metals into something you could find on the radio, although maybe 500 years in the future, and in space.

A-side “Gus Sneaks Out,” might be what happens when you put a trunk-mounted subwoofer in a wind-up music box. How Koenig makes this stuff happen is still mostly a mystery to me, but while the tune is busy with whirrs and blips and cut-up stabs, it still thumps like a motherfucker–a form of lowrider music for the tiny, imaginary people who live under my floorboards. When we spoke, the man behind Hot Sugar mentioned that he was using vocalists and MCs for his upcoming full-length, and while it’s not hard to imagine someone spitting bars over this instrumental, it is hard to place, exactly, how such an addition would change the vibe. This music, despite the heavy-processing of its origins, still manages to come across as deeply, cellularly organic—even wooly. I’ve tried rapping on the track a couple of times, and although I’ve attempted using real words, the only thing that seems to sound even remotely correct is a kind of syncopated gorilla bark. This, I guess, is the real Jungle music.

“Juicing Up” is a slightly different story. A titular reference to consuming a juice box, and not, I believe, abusing steroids, the B-side contains one of the insatiably hooky lead-lines since “The Final Countdown,” the kind of melody that replicates itself virally inside your brain and causes breakouts at embarrassing times. This is mission music, the kind of thing you would listen to en route to the most important thing ever, and then listen to again on your way home. Fuck Ritalin. “Juicing Up” is like musical concentration from concentrate, archetypically empowering in the sense that it might actually make you think you’re the ubermensch, or at least his Game Boy screen doppelganger. Never let me drive to this song, because I’d focus on the road so hard I’d come to a complete standstill in moving traffic. No vocals here. No distractions either.

The point to these extended forays into personal anecdote is that Koenig’s music is, for samples culled from “things you can’t buy commercially” (as the artist says), well, personal. If quintessential noise music is alienating, then Hot Sugar’s noises are quintessentially emotional, the end result of an alchemical process by which all frequencies and found sounds can be rendered coextensive with the human soul.

AEM037 Andy J Gallagher

AEM037 Andy J Gallagher

I always get a bit concerned when an artist claims, like Andy J Gallagher does, to possess a “longing, homage, respect, and love for the glory days” of something, especially punk rock. Not only does nostalgia make people sound old, but the very idea of the “glory days” of anything as amorphous and fickle as punk is ludicrous: less a genre than an ideology, punk has always been more about breaking things and creating monsters out of the detritus than a particular sound or style. “Fuck history,” some collective mega-ghost of Joe Strummer, the MC5 , Iggy Pop and Penny Rimbaud might say, “Gimme danger instead.”On the other hand, despite the fact that everything can become punk—a rendition of Handel’s Messiah sung into a beer can, for example—not everything that says it’s punk actually is. It’s one of those know-it-when-you-hear-it kind of things: Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Dylan, Minor Threat, Slayer…all totally punk. And Andy J Gallagher, backwards-looking or not, certainly sounds punk. It’s abstract. But is it enough?

Here’s the gist: Gallagher, who looks like an actor playing Lou Reed in a hypothetical Berlin: The Movie and is not, I believe, related to either of the Oasis bros, gigged around London for a few years with the brilliantly titled band The Shopkeeper Appeared, showing up on the BBC and playing support slots for Radiohead before ditching the fame-and-fortune route to conduct extensive research on international musical culture with some buddies. Ethnomusicological foray in the bag, the intrepid Brit returned home to dig deeper into his nation’s own version of Congolese war drumming: two-minute guitar rock songs. When Roman Jugg, a back-in-the-day keyboardist for the Damned (definitely punk) heard the tapes, he decided to man the decks for Gallagher’s perplexingly dubbed full-length Helicopter Dolphin Submarine. The songs here are taken from that record.

It’s the archetypal rock n’ roll narrative, almost too much so to warrant credibility: man starts weirdly-named band, achieves minor fame, goes off the rails, goes to Africa and Mexico or something, uncovers a hitherto hidden part of his soul in the eyes of a little boy banging out clave on a dusty bucket, and returns home triumphant and ready to start another band, albeit this time with weird album names instead. If Levi-Strauss hadn’t just died, he could have translated this guy’s professional life into a work of structuralist anthropology called The Raw and the Half-Baked.

But Ampeater is, to quote the “about us” in the upper right hand corner, all about the music. Of course nothing really is all about anything. Still, if we stick to that optimistic assumption, Andy J Gallagher begins to look a lot better; great even. So OK, fuck history, let’s get down to the tracks.

It was hard to pick two tracks for this 7-inch, not only because they’re all massively catchy, perfectly structured pop-punk tunes, but also because they’re all trying to do something different, referencing different pieces of the genre’s canon, condensing whole decades worth of material into singular songs with proficiency and verve. I guess that’s a plug for the album. It is, for a person who always thought the Clash were better songwriters than the Beatles, and the Buzzcocks catchier than the Kinks, a heartwarming and self-affirming experience. If this is what homages sound like, I don’t think the glory days ever really ended.

So, for the digital 7-inch, I think it’s best to show this guy’s range. A-side “Faster and Faster,” takes a step backwards on the timeline, latching onto the death-and-sex sensibilities that fueled proto-punk’s nihilistic self-presentation and coming up with something that could be a cover of an entire ideology. Gallagher makes no bones about the metaphysics of the sonic setup, saying it’s, “a song of 3 desperadoes – a pole dancer, a con and a junkie – who’s lives are drifting away faster and faster. But, like in the movies, they all live happily ever after!” That two-note intro: Jesus Christ, it’s horrifying, lurching like an emaciated gutter-kid wandering out of an alleyway covered in excrement and track marks or some massive British sealiner about to sink with thousands of people on board. This is music, I think, for the end of time, which, I suppose, the Thatcher years probably came alarmingly close to becoming. While Cold War dread has dissipated in the past twenty years, the resonances of this kind of aural cynicism still send shivers down my spine, not from excitement but from the lingering suspicion that radiation poisoning from billions of buried warheads crept into my fetal bloodstream way back in the beginning. Gallagher knows we’re still living out a Reaganite nightmare, infected by weapons and experiments and mistakes from the past, slowly growing up into Fukuyama’s historyless zombies, looking for antiques to buy online and devour quietly in our bedrooms. Man, those weren’t the glory days, but the End of Days. Happily ever after indeed.

B-side “Rope Swings Eternal” is more a historical commentary than a chilled-out diversion, embodying that late-70s sense that aggressive, sneering rock could maintain its abusive streak even while dressed up in crunchier clothes. The track sounds like a decade’s worth of stylistic transition, punk growing out of dive bars and basements to make music videos and expanding the textural palette of three chords played really fast into three chords played less fast and on an acoustic guitar. “There were a spate of angst ridden teenage suicides in the UK and this is a fictional take on that,” says Gallagher, “The song started with the title, a play on hope springs eternal, and was playing this Hawaiin sounding thing sliding up to the 12th fret and mucking around with the A shape, transposed it down to G and there’s your verse.” But it’s the more metaphorical kind of stylistic shape-shifting Gallagher captures here that’s important. “Rope Swings Eternal” could essentially be thought of as a blown-up photograph of the punk genre’s virus extending its epidemiology towards everything from folk to new wave to pop crossover, all the things that the scene, originally, never wanted to be. Spaced out, blissful, it’s a killer track that’s timeless in the sense that it could only be made in semi-nostalgic retrospect. Historians say it’s hard to write about contemporary events and figures with a critical eye. Gallagher, composing something like the Recorded History of Alternative Rock, seems to agree.

AEM031 I’m Not a Band

AEM031 I’m Not a Band

When a band decides to call itself I’m Not a Band, it’s kind of like a bear coming out of the woods and saying “I’m not a bear.” The first thing you think is, “Yeah right, prove it.” Then the next thing you think is, “Holy shit! That bear just talked!” So in this case, when some German guy with a synthesizer and a violin and a pretty lady on vocals tell you that they’re not a band, try and suppress that gut instinct that, well, they look like a band, and sound like a band, and, who knows, probably smell like a band, and focus instead on the less obvious point: Why are they telling me anything at all? To this question, I think, there is always only one answer: they have something to hide.

Electronic music does interesting things to people’s identities. Perhaps it’s something about sheer incomprehensibility of the racks of ridiculous machinery covered in knobs and screens and buttons that most DJs carry around: as Tom Waits said, “What’s he building in there?” While not everyone may be able play guitar or drums, at least most people understand how those instruments work: bang on this, hit these strings with a pick, let’s move on. But unlike bands that futz around on standard hardware, electronic musicians tend to cloak their technique in all kinds of secrecy to the point where alienation from the process of musical production becomes both point of the style and its barometer for coolness. Have you ever seen anyone do an air-ADSR-envelope-tweak? No, because a) it would look idiotic, and b) who the fuck knows what an ADSR envelope is? I’m Not a Band, on the other hand, whose sweet brand of blippy/bloopy electropop certainly qualifies, at least in theory, for the electronica cloak-of-mystery, decides instead to turn up the TMI envelope.

So here’s the story. Stephan J. is born to a pair of professional German musicians and is subsequently classically trained on violin. In 2005, he moves to England, is wowed by club culture, and switches his primary axe to the laptop. Jana D. joins the project in 2009, and the pair proceed to perform, win a MySpace best-new-band competition, and release some groovy material. Interesting here is not necessarily the bildungsroman of a German violin prodigy transformed into a rampaging techno star by the London’s bright lights and pulsing subwoofers, but the fact that the group wears this cultural cross-over on its sleeve. In a genre where obscuring poses, from Daft Punk’s robot hats, to Crystal Castles blinding strobe light blasts, are the order of the day, I’m Not a Band has opted for something else: transparency. See this violin?, says Stephan, I’m going to play it in an electro band. Hear these complex harmonies and non-conventional song structures and intricate dynamics? Those are there because I’m a classical musician from Germany. There is a stunning honesty to these caveats, and a stunning payoff as well: these two tracks, despite the biography behind them, are big-time stunners.

A-side “Crazy,” strikes a fascinating balance between off-kilter pop somewhere in the vicinity of another violin-toting group, The Raincoats, and the synth-stomp of a less linear Matt and Kim. I’m not exactly sure if this is club music—it may be a bit too jittery for nonstop floor action—but it certainly sets up a cool flipside to IDM-style braindancing. Where “intelligence” in the world of groups like Autechre or Aphex Twin translates into technical difficulty—the programmer’s equivalent of guitar shredding—I’m Not a Band imagines a kind of electro art-pop that engages the higher functions and the amygdala simultaneously. Passages are unpredictable, variations plentiful. Dance smarter, seems to be the message, but still dance.

The second, vocal-less track “This Is It,” is a slightly more straightforward bit of chiptune bounce, warm, interweaving arpeggiated synths that remind me a bit of what someone like Pink Stallone would do if trained in the Suzuki method. The title of the tune, while seemingly innocuous, is actually something of a call to arms: if “Crazy” dabs little bits of I’m Not a Band’s storied violin noncommittally around the composition, this song puts the fiddle, so to speak, in the middle. See this violin, says Stephan. This is it! Indeed, about three minutes in, strains of strings begin to creep into the pulse like some kind of phantom baroque radio station and start getting louder. It’s a cool effect–by the track’s end, synth and violin have essentially exchanged prominence in the mix. Stephan, the orchestra boy seduced by big beats and sequencers, seems to have come full circle.

But here’s the big question, and the one that goes back to my first point about having something to hide. Is there any difference between I’m Not a Band’s I’m a Real Violin, and any other electronic artist’s employment of a string-section preset on a Korg? No, I think, but also yes.

Here’s why. In the age of Ableton, any recorded sound can be quantized, chopped up, synchronized with a beat, and manipulated to resemble any other sound. So, in terms of actual sonics, what we hear on the record, I’m Not a Band’s violin, by virtue of their electropop meme, is essentially meaningless. I’m trusting that these guys use a real violin, but when it comes to this kind of thing, trust is all we can go on.

On the other hand, I’m Not a Band’s mere insistence upon this biographical detail is necessary to maintaining their own procedural mystery. The violin, we can say, is the equivalent of the Daft Punk helmet. So what, then, are I’m Not a Band hiding? The fact that they have nothing to hide.

AEM018 Shark?

AEM018 Shark?

The biggest question asked by the music of Shark? is, well, Shark? No, seriously, this is pretty straightforward business, albeit masterfully made, with an expansive, almost theoretical understanding of what “indie rock” could mean in an era when that term has become practically meaningless. So, regardless of how, I don’t know, not-new-in terms of synth wobbles, cut-up drums, faux-afro flavor, fu*k it, even compression-Shark? sound, that reactionary aesthetic, here appropriated with live instruments the way other bands mine Max MSP, is very interesting indeed.

Why? Because Shark? (from Brooklyn) proves that there is such a thing as an “indie” sound that has nothing to do with actual “indie-pendence”, that the accidental aesthetic of basement productions of the 80s and 90s has become dislocated from the conditions of their production. What we have here is pure simulacrum, the sign (rock) dissociated from its signified (filth, 4-Tracks, etc.) to make way for an “indie rock” that is nothing but sound signifying itself.

Snore. But really, it’s worth noting how this pattern has been unfolding across the pop-music consciousness of America since, let’s say, The Strokes (and by the Strokes, I don’t specifically mean the Strokes, but that whole idea of the Strokes). Not that “indie” is a new term. I remember that shit on my amazon.com wishlist when I was 8 and not knowing what it meant. Still, “indie”, at some point, must have meant “independent”, as in, not “independent-y sounding music”, but independence from major labels, playing nasty, hepatitis-C-infected living rooms, breaking strings and selling your shoes for new ones, the van blowing a tire in Topeka, and a bunch of other stuff I could make up. “Indie” wasn’t a way to play, it was an economic situation that necessitated a way of playing. Do I sound like an old dude? I’m not complaining. It’s just I have to believe that “indie” was a real thing before it was a genre, just like there was an “industrial revolution” before there was industrial music.

But back to Shark?. I love this band. Their record sounds great! They have incredible songs, great craft, a thick sound that I’d be psyched to see live. It sounds like some undiscovered 1976 gem of a single dug up in the way back of the last surviving CD store in Minneapolis’s going-out-of business sale. Kind of. Or it could be from Sweden. That’s the whole point. Wherever these guys are from, the music is place-less, scene-less, history-less while at the same time evoking perfectly someplace, some scene, some fraught and cool history.

“I’m an Animal,” has my new favorite comeback. In response to the title, the singer, on the second verse, rebuts, in a dead-eyed, crackly voice, “You’re a mineral.” Brilliant! Let’s talk about this. The song kicks off with some shambolic hi-hats, then a big organ swell, then some staccato guitars, meaty-bass, echo-y, tinny vocals. It’s pitch-perfect in its imperfections, like a cheese-filled with delicious fungus and covered in holes. Yada-yada, the tune continues. Then, out of left-field comes this warbly, crazy-flute synth, somewhere between “My Heart Will Go On” and MGMT (wait, is there “somewhere between” those two things?). It’s a killer riff. But what is it? The singer knows. If verse one was the animal, verse two is the mineral.

The second track “Colder Arabella”, a slightly-renamed cover, apparently, of another Brooklyn band called Dinosaur Feathers’s tune called “Cold Arabella,” drives the disconnect home. While the titling is amusing, it’s also a seemingly out-of-place nod to remix culture: Dinosaur Feathers’s is cold, but this shit is colder! I’d believe it. The track, dry, fuzzed-out, deadpan, a little out of tune, is so anonymous it could have been produced autonomously from a sentient version of the 1984 SST catalog. It’s chilly, not like steel girders in February, but like circuits in cold storage.

What we have in Shark? is a question without an answer, where the unanswerability of the question (where, when, who) makes the band unique and specific. Shark? could only exist now, whenever now happens to be.

AEM004 RAUL

AEM004 RAUL
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Personnel: Alex Silva (guitar & vox), Justin Gonçalves (lead guitar), Parker Fishel (guitar), Sam Rosenthal (bass), Jacob Brunner (drums)
  • Related Posts: AEM001 Strawberry Hands

Some would say metal is the easiest genre to parody because of its obsessive maximalism. Clearly, any metalhead worth his or her warpaint could immediately name some examples to the contrary. What about some of that minimalist black metal like Ildjarn or Striborg, recorded in one take on a Sony tape player by a rustic lunatic? Or the whole genre of grindcore, predicated on the principle of compressing what could conceivably be a six-minute song if it were performed by, say, Suffocation, into a denser-than-Iridium thirty seconds? OK, these are valid points, but not the right points. Metal over-the-topness is all about the aesthetics of production, lyrics, instrumentation, dress-sense, or, to be more specific: distortion, Satan, double-kicks and spikes. Like in the case of the statement “not all smokers get cancer,” the exceptions to the rule do not necessarily make the rule untrue. Smoking, for all intents and purposes, will give you cancer. But metal is a different theoretical beast. Metal, despite all signs to the contrary, is not about maximalism, but, at its core, is a fundamentally minimalist art. Some artists, like Mick Barr of Orthrelm and Krallice, totally get this: shred patterns repeated to infinity, the sound file directly translatable into a binary grid of drums on the x axis and guitar on the y. It’s counterintuitive, but this mutating 2-bit virus of a style is the closest thing metal has to a soul. RAUL, out of New York, is another one of the rare groups to grasp this paradox. They’ve performed the kind of weird alchemy necessary to separate the ding as sich of the genre from the frilly bullshit that so typically clings to it like maggots to a disintegrating ham.

Check the intro to “Campaign Trail Mix.” Some amp fuzz, cymbal brushes and then a plodding three-note figure, it might qualify as the reverse of bombastic. The whole thing plods like a Diplodocus through the motions of what metal intros are supposed to be in such a hyper-literal way that the passage becomes both comedic and transcendent. By stripping away the stylistic armor, putting the exposed cliche under an electron microscope and pressing the red circle, RAUL has given us videotape of the genre’s underlying genotype. The effect is not unlike unbuttoning Andre the Giant’s leotard only to find that his whole, testosterone-inflated body falls off with it like a fat suit, leaving behind only a 2-Dimensional sprite of its original self standing in the ring. Yup, just like that.

The band has a lot of range, too: acoustic numbers, hazy atmospherics, falsetto singing. Take “Latin America,” a soft-ish prog jam with a gorgeous vocals and some jazz-tastic noodling. It’s as if there were actually a band called Simon and Gar-fu*k-all. These things both matter and don’t matter, the former because it sounds great, and the latter because RAUL’s whole point is that the salad dressing doesn’t really alter the vegetables underneath.

The constants, on the other hand, are absolutely crucial. Take, for instance, the trebly fuzztone of the guitars, darting from song to song like the haloed tracer on a green-lit radar screen. Or the goofy song titles, something, I admit, I was a bit apprehensive about before giving them a listen. While “Whale Life > Human Life” and the aforementioned “Campaign Trail Mix” may push your Titus Andronicus, or, God forbid, The Number Twelve Looks Like You buttons, don’t worry, it’s actually a genius move. While various shitty metalcore bands use arch humor to hide their total lack of insight into the music they make, RAUL is actually burrowing into the classic metal tradition of I-Am-The-Album-Cover. But while Altars of Madness is pure stunt masquerading as evil, RAUL takes the same source material and feeds it through a random word generator. The result isn’t evil, really, but the psychology of evil at the level of the amigdala. Fear and humor, they know, originate in the same place.