When we affix an “outsider” descriptor to some aspect of culture, we’re really saying that thing is undervalued, underappreciated, or under the radar — and the more open and accessible culture becomes, the easier it is to overlook the strange and unusual. What is popular (usually) dominates attention, and everything that isn’t universally accessible melts away to the margins. Yet marginalized never equates to nonexistent, and for many, the margins are where it’s at.
This column concerns itself with outsider music, sound forged in zones that don’t necessarily translate into mainstream cover stories or arena stardom. Experimental, noise, drone, and hardcore were never reliably popular, but outsider jazz, improv, and modern composition have joined them near the margins in recent decades, making bedfellows of everyone: the late Tony Conrad, Sonic Youth, Oxbow, Rusted Shut, Wolf Eyes, Rie Nakajima. Those artists are barely the tip of the iceberg. Below, you’ll find a few underground recordings we’ve gravitated to in the first third of 2016.
Matthew Revert/Vanessa Rossetto, Earnest Rubbish (Erstwhile)
On Earnest Rubbish, Melbourne’s Matthew Revert and the Austin-based Vanessa Rossetto subscribe to the Jeweled Antler Collective theory of sound, which insists that well-sourced and judiciously arranged field recordings can be as or more effective than traditional musical performance. Together, the pair carve out an intimate space larger and stranger than the sum of its available materials, reimagining the wider world as an extension of a studio laboratory.
In their reckoning, melody is ever-present and inescapable: ice rattling in a glass, specious drumming, chem-trailed flutes, passing strangers’ small talk, instruments being tuned or played softly, radio pop overheard. The collagers hint at the caustic, querulous compositions that populate their respective discographies while their microphones become characters in overlapping, impressionistic travelogues to nowhere — an open-air market placelessness that intoxicates.
Boris with Merzbow, Gensho (Relapse)
Intended as a collaborative double album where each half is meant to be heard simultaneously (even though each is solid by its lonesome), Gensho confronts those with a taste for the overwhelming with a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque predicament. For their part, art-metal trio Boris rewires old catalog cutlets as blown-out, road-warrior shoegaze; meanwhile, for his, noise legend Merzbow hang-glides through cloud banks of machinist-shop bubblegum and stretched-vocal lunacy.
But to layer-cake these two sides is to find yourself navigating a nirvana where Technicolor madness floods every inch of aural real estate, where the former’s blazing fury and the latter’s free-form entropy clash, trading off in terms of advancing the action and heightening the overall rush. At its wildest moments, this synthesized Gensho sounds like the universe throwing up in its own mouth. Tokyo, represent!
Lea Bertucci, Axis/Atlas (Clandestine Compositions)
This latest cassette from the New York City-based Lea Bertucci spans an array of moods and intensities. Side A of Axis/Atlas leads with the gnashing “Dragano Earworm,” an oncoming churn of spliced tape and re-re-re-regurgitated birdsong, with a voluminous bass sniffing around the margins; the title track offers rippling, raw distortion that metamorphosizes into stinging drone.
Side B, “Cepheid,” is a longer haul, gathering bells booming and decimated, airplane samples, and sharp exhales of feedback with a 20-minute long sweep of its wide, gray tail; the muted, purgatorial glide of the early going eventually peaks with a clattering musique concrète commotion that suggests the preamble to a rollercoaster ride, all-out cosmic warfare, or an extremely intrepid, off-off-Broadway production of Stomp.
Protean Reality, Protean Reality (Clean Feed)
A scabrous vitality powers this self-titled debut from Protean Reality, a trio featuring bassist Noah Punkt and saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos of NYC, with Leipzig, Germany’s Philipp Scholz on drums. Their metier is a sharp, straining jazz-improv that, at its most delicious, feels inextricably, telepathically communal. Scholz shoves or slides his chameleonic beat from pocket to pocket. Punkt diplomatically inserts low-end where and when it will have the greatest impact. The group’s undisputed spirit guide, Pitsiokos goes full Cuisinart on his horn, doling out muted purrs, jerked spurts, and excruciating squawks suggesting the masturbation of balloon animals. Hats off, anyone sincerely attempting to breakdance to this.
Glitterbust, Glitterbust (Burger)
The debut LP from Kim Gordon’s second post-Sonic Youth duo couldn’t be more different than the debut LP from Body/Head. Coming Apart, where the guitars of Gordon and collaborator Bill Nace burned with a righteous fury, was immediate: one didn’t need to read the back half of Girl in a Band to grasp its noisy recoil on a psychic level.
Comparatively, Glitterbust sets its phasers squarely on simmer, with vocalists/guitarists Gordon and Alex Knost wandering through a thinny straight outta Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass. All is mumble, warble, chill tape-deck shenanigans, sturm und drone. There’s next to no tempo to speak of, and they assiduously cultivate a studied monotony, but one can’t escape the sense that this slab is, secretly, the ultimate grower.
The Spiritual Switchboard, Post-Age Variations (Baked Tapes)
The debut tape from this NYC duo doubles as a musical therapy session, a deft, holistic weaving together of synthesizer ribbons. As disorienting occult-drone goes, Post-Age Variations is undeniable, though a certain stateliness colors the proceedings. On “Untitled I,” buzzing nuclei waver between channels as bass tones pulse like deployed depth charges; the more malleable “Untitled II” feeds regal, trumpet-like fanfares through shivery, atonal mirages. “Untitled III” consumes Side B whole, unspooling 26 minutes of drizzly, synaptic neon which, at times, recalls Tracks and Traces, the Brian Eno and Harmonia ‘76 team-up from 1997.
Naked Truth, Avian Thug (RareNoise)
Cut from velvet and hung with jewels, Avian Thug swings, punches, and tickles like a Nixon-era jazz quartet LP. NYC’s Naked Truth foster a rich, warm tone that’s incense-intense. Graham Haynes’ electrified cornet paints shrill, drowsy rainbows of colors. But everyone’s a star here — his fellow players are equal partners, locking into and out of sensuous, earth-tone grooves. Lorenzo Feliciati unfurls bass lines that eat like three-course meals, Pat Mastelotto’s percussion is steady, quiet thunder, and Roy Powell insinuates delirious counter-melodies via Hammond organ and synthesizer. Outré electronic effects surface on occasion, heightening an overall otherworldliness.