The New Rites of Spring
The Last Word in Instrumental Rock, Austin and Otherwise
It's an overly romanticized notion, the idea of every generation having some sort of defining musical moment, like Jimi Hendrix deconstructing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, Johnny Rotten singing "No Fun" at the Winterland, or perhaps Igor Stravinsky inciting a riot with his boisterous Rite of Spring at Paris' Champs-...lysées Theatre in 1913.
Yet forward progress, whether scientific, musical, or spiritual, is more often than not a series of individual epiphanies that can involve no more stimulus than a leaf falling from a tree -- or a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Sometimes, these epiphanies happen to a collective group -- at the same time, same place -- and that's when they begin to take on a life of their own.
For the couple hundred people assembled at a nightclub in the spring of 1996 to watch an up-and-coming instrumental band from Chicago, one such moment occurred in the unlikely locale of Denton, Texas, more or less the penal colony of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. Here, in this small college town, a cluster of creative music-lovers, disenchanted with the pompous, hostile attitude of Dallas and the archaic conservatism of Ft. Worth built their own refuge for musical and social creativity. In a short-lived club called the Argo, this handful of local visionaries assembled the Melodica Festival, a three-day event featuring 18 bands, some of them from as far away as England.
The wide variety of innovative acts was a departure in itself, but the crowning moment happened at the festival's conclusion, when Tortoise took the stage. All pretensions flew out the window as the twentysomething fans of psychedelic rock in attendance stood there with their mouths agape, visibly blown away by the amorphous beast of sound.
Propelled by vibraphone workouts, various electronics, and a driving rhythm section, Tortoise's set reached its transcendent peak when Pete Kember, one half of the near-legendary Spacemen 3, joined in. Kember, also known as Sonic Boom, had flown in from England to perform the previous night as Experimental Audio Research, and his mysterious live electronic circuitry conjured otherworldly tones that elevated this performance into the stratosphere.
For those who witnessed the show, and Tortoise's ensuing Austin performance at the Electric Lounge with fellow Melodica performers and Chicagoans the Sea and Cake and 5ive Style, new musical doors came sharply into focus. This was a clear signpost for the ascendance of instrumental rock, both in Texas and nationally, and a cue to many that now was the time to dig back to the past in order to find a brighter musical future.
"It's like when Miles Davis, in the Seventies, was blowing away all these musicians who really didn't know anything about music," says Philip Croley, who along with Mazinga Phaser's Wanz Dover, helped organize the Melodica Festival, and who now books shows for the Mercury and other local venues. "That's kinda what Tortoise has done. None of them were jazz musicians; they were all in rock bands. They just came together and taught themselves, and chemistry-wise play really well together. That's the whole thing about jazz -- playing together, not just soloing. Playing together to better the group."
Labeled an indie rock band, Tortoise is essentially a musical hybrid, inspired as much by electronic music, Davis' electric period, and progressive rock music as by the Eighties college scene out of which the group emerged. Tortoise neither invented nor single-handedly inspired the resurgence of instrumental rock that began in the mid-Nineties. They are, however, crucial figures in the movement, if it can be called such, and their popularity has continued to mushroom even as their contemporaries make a break for a larger share of the musical market.
In fact, after simmering just under the surface for the past five years or so, instrumental music is just now reaching a boiling point. So far, 2001 is shaping up as the Year of Instrumental Rock, with high-profile releases and tours by Tortoise and Glasgow's Mogwai, along with albums by such emerging acts as Japancakes, Drums & Tuba, Matmos, Mouse on Mars, To Rococo Rot, and the ever-influential Labradford.
Proof of the movement's emergence came in part earlier this month, when Tortoise curated London's massive All Tomorrow's Parties festival, which has inherited the mantle of the world's foremost forward-looking musical event from the Reading Festival. Along with Yo La Tengo and a reunion by seminal art-punk band Television, the Chicagoans brought with them cutting edge electronic artists Boards of Canada and the Eternals, as well as the Sun Ra Arkestra, perhaps as clear a summation as any of where the band is coming from musically.
Last year's event brought Austin's ...Trail of Dead overseas, as well as giving Labradford, Mogwai, Montreal's Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and Iceland's Sigur Rós a large platform to spread their diverse musical visions. Bob Coleman, co-owner of local record store Thirty Three Degrees, likens the proliferation of instrumental acts to the Seventies punk explosion jump-started by the recently expired Joey Ramone and Co.
"Overall, there are more bands making music like that, and more of that music is selling," says Coleman, whose store stocks all of the above artists. "But that phenomenon isn't that much different from when punk rock exploded in the mid-Seventies, and all of a sudden instead of just the Ramones, there were thousands of garage punk rock bands in everybody's suburban subdivision. Two years later there were hundreds if not thousands of bands that had records out."
Echoes of the Melodica Festival continue to reverberate down I-35, most prominently in the spacey echo-dub missives of Denton's Sub Oslo, who take the genre into new stratospheres courtesy of a nine-piece ensemble and live mixing board. They have found a home away from home in the Mercury, a suitable forum for their brilliant live shows, an all-encompassing vortex of sight and sound.
For his part, Mercury's booking man Croley released Sub Oslo's excellent Dubs in the Key of Life last year on the Two Ohm Hop label, which he co-owns with fellow Denton refugee and prolific producer David Willingham. Two Ohm Hop is also home to hard-hitting Krautrock juggernaut Yeti and the improvised psychedelic jazz of Ohm, both Fort Worth bands who used to spend a great deal of their time in Denton. Two Ohm Hop also houses the Earl Harvin Trio, the versatile combo led by the esteemed Dallas veteran and in-demand studio drummer.
During the Argo's two-year reign, Denton was home to an armada of psychedelic bands and truckloads of effects pedals. Soon, there was talk across the state and even the country about the "Denton space-rock scene," immortalized in print by Dave Segal of Alternative Press, who attended the first Melodica Festival and wrote a glowing appraisal of such Denton psychedelic bands as Mazinga Phaser, Sub Oslo, and Light Bright Highway.
It's no coincidence that around this time, the Electric Lounge was regularly attracting influential drone acts such as Main, Labradford, and several of the other bands on the Kranky label. Suddenly the vocabulary of Texas psychedelic rock, long a tradition, from the 13th Floor Elevators through Ed Hall and the Butthole Surfers, had expanded to include instrumental music that blurred the lines between genres.
Coincidentally or not, a great number of local instrumental bands also have their origins in the mid-Nineties, including the Golden Arm Trio, who've been serving up a unique instrumental mix since 1995. Informed equally by jazz, classical, and rock music, founder and sole constant Graham Reynolds is just as likely to rattle off a bone-thumping drum solo as conduct a rich, multitextured symphony, as he did last year with the Golden Arm Symphony, a joint venture with frequent collaborator Peter Stopschinski of Brown Whörnet. Despite his musical skills and inexhaustible ambition, Reynolds says he still feels most at home in a rock club.
"Emo's has been the place over the years we've played the most," says Reynolds, "and that's fine by me. The dynamic and the energy of the music is more fitting to a rock club. I think the core of it ends up being rock & roll, whereas the superficial elements are more jazz-oriented. And we get called jazz and get stuck in that corner sometimes, but then people figure out that there's more to it."
That description also applies to local mutant jazz outfits like the Blue Noise Band, Futants, and Gnappy, who can be found filling up local jazz joint the Elephant Room with high-energy rock & roll jams arranged with traditional jazz instruments. Otherworldly, pedal steel-driven local combo Friends of Dean Martinez, meanwhile, defy most categorizations, which shouldn't stop them from finding a home for their new LP Wichita Lineman after a lack of promotional support from Knitting Factory for last year's sublime A Place in the Sun left them in the market for a new label.
On the far rock side of the equation, locals Migas occasionally chime in with their pummeling low-end attack, while Rhythm of Black Lines regularly showboat their fun, bouncy, X-Acto-like precision, as they did on an East Coast tour last year opening for fellow El Paso emigrants At the Drive-In.
Austin's Jason Butler, owner of ROBL's label Sixgunlover, is slowly accumulating a cluster of bands that would fit like a glove into Chicago's so-called "math-rock" scene. Instrumentalists Jeweled Handles and the carnivalesque Adolfo's Reversal round out the local contingent of Sixgunlover, which also includes a pair of true Chicago artists. Many of the bands are kindred spirits with ex-Austinites Paul Newman, whose guitarist of the same name was a founding member of Rhythm of Black Lines.
Newman and his band moved to Chicago a couple of years back, joining erstwhile Austinites and labelmates Drums & Tuba, who were then signed to Chicago's My Pal God Records, home of bouncy instrumental Eighties-noir revivalists Emperor Penguin. Drums & Tuba have since moved to New York and jumped ship to Ani DiFranco's mega-indie Righteous Babe, touring constantly to enthusiastic response while refining their unique blend that might be described as your high school marching-band-mates on acid jamming to funk records after a tutorial from avant-jazzmaster John Zorn.
Another innovative local instrumental band that emerged in the mid-Nineties, the erudite Windsor for the Derby, have resurfaced on Michael Gira's Young God label and displayed a more uptempo, vocal-driven sound at last week's Built to Spill show at UT's Union Ballroom. Joining them on the bill was Austin's most promising young band, Explosions in the Sky, who are about as close to a "buzz band" as a local group gets.
Explosions in the Sky are a rock & roll band through and through, a point made loud and clear in their bombastic sonic assaults and occasionally spasmodic onstage antics. At the heart of their sound, however, is a soothing harmonic resonance, an atmospheric intermingling of tone and texture that, like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, is suggestive of something very primal and mysterious.
"We don't know keys at all," says the band's drummer Chris Hrasky. "We don't even consider ourselves musicians. We just play emotions, images."
Their music is certainly rife with both. Though the textures and interplay are not unlike Sonic Youth, their music is filled with direct and obvious passion, which isn't always the case with instrumental rock. They even provided the soundtrack for the award-winning local indie film Cicadas, a heartwrenching coming-of-age teen flick somewhere between Degrassi Jr. High and The Virgin Suicides.
Explosions have come a long way in less than two years, inking a deal with Baltimore's Temporary Residence, home of challenging instrumental acts Sonna and Tarentel. Their epic Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever is due for a late-summer release, and advance copies reveal a work of stunning depth and power. The album should serve as a curious barometer of just how much immediate success an unknown instrumental band on a small indie label can have in today's changing marketplace.
It wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, instrumental music was the only game in town. There was always vocal music in the realms of folk and opera, but classical and later jazz were the dominant art forms in Western civilization. Then along came the jazz singers and Frank Sinatra, and instrumental music was forever relegated to secondary status in terms of sales.
Reynolds attributes the disappearance of instrumental music as a viable commercial form as much to an increasing lack of expressiveness on the parts of classical and jazz as to an overall dumbing-down of pop culture in America and the ascendance of charismatic vocalists.
"Twentieth-century instrumental music and art got very self-absorbed," says Reynolds. "There was a huge transformation in classical music right around the Rite of Spring. The individual expression had always been important in music, but that superceded everything. Then 12-tone music came along, and everything sort of went behind the wall of academia."
From there jazz took the reins, but it soon dropped the ball as well in terms of popularity.
"The downfall of jazz as far as popular music came when it stopped being dance music," says Reynolds. "Bebop was sort of the beginning of the end -- hard bop and John Coltrane. Saying nothing about their artistry, it was not music created to communicate directly with most people at that time."
With the two dominant forms of music all but gone from the commercial marketplace, the path was clear for rock & roll, R&B, and other forms of pop music to take over. Of course, classical and jazz didn't disappear, and in the Seventies, jazz musicians took Miles Davis' cue and resorted to playing a fusion of jazz and rock. The movement, for the most part, was not an artistic success.
So fusion lies on the shelf and jazz stays content with its little slice of the pie, and then along comes a Tortoise to reintroduce jazz fusion to a new generation. Thrill Jockey labelmates Isotope 217 (a Tortoise side project) and the Chicago Underground Duo take these musical conventions even further, stripping away the thin veil separating Tortoise from fusion. To some, Tortoise is simply recycled goods, a safe, palatable alternative to more challenging forms of music.
"Bands like Tortoise, they just smoked a bunch of pot and listened to Miles Davis and John Cage and did it in a down-to-earth way that a lot of people identify with," says Dave Palmer of the Earl Harvin Trio and electro-jazz outfit Ponga. "Part of the reason that bands like Tortoise and Medeski, Martin & Wood and Galactic have become so popular is that they are watered-down versions of the stuff they came from. "
It was 1993, and grunge was already a fat, bloated carcass. It might have been 1977 all over again, except Kurt Cobain was already dead, and besides, all the noise had grown tiresome. Then, out of another small college town, Richmond, Va. -- probably not much more exciting than Denton, Texas -- came the sound of an indie rock band that didn't rock. An ambient group that used guitars.
Labradford's Prazision felt like a series of dream fragments, with Mark Nelson's reverb-washed fretwork and whispered vocals melting into the warm atmospherics of Carter Brown's analog synths. Perfect music to dream to, the album being one of the first labeled "post-rock," defined in 1994 by Simon Reynolds of British mag The Wire: "Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords."
"It's was kind of frustrating at the time," says Nelson of the tag. "I think we were trying to do something that didn't sound like anything else. To do that and succeed to some degree, to put out a record and instantly have people jumping to classify it, it's a little bit frustrating. Seems sort of pointless, you know?"
Clearly Prazision's influence was felt, both in the enthusiastic response the album received and in the number of like-minded bands that sprung up soon afterward.
"I think if we've had an influence, it's less that bands sound like us and more just that people starting out now feel more freedom to explore something different," posits Nelson. "If that's been an influential record, it's been in a more abstract way."
Labradford's music is a branch of the tree planted by minimalist composers such as La Monte Young, Arvo Pärt, and Terry Riley, though Nelson downplays their influence on Prasizion. The signposts became even clearer on subsequent albums after Nelson dropped his vocals altogether. Yet the Labradford sound has remained constant in many ways, and their recently released fixed::content has fully expanded the dream fragments of earlier albums into a deep, relaxed, meditative slumber.
Fixed::content is release No. 47 on Kranky Records, the label founded by Chicago natives Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke to release Prazision. After the glowing accolades came pouring in, Adams and Loeschke continued stumbling upon bands that were working in a similar vein. Jessamine, Bowery Electric, and New Zealand guitarist Roy Montgomery all fell into the Kranky fold, and soon a strong identity began to form.
In 1997, Kranky added to their roster then-Austinites Stars of the Lid, who emerged during Austin's Electric Lounge scene of the mid-Nineties. Challenging listeners with a subtly complex series of hums and drones and other fragments that slowly coalesce to form a complete picture, Stars of the Lid's measured perspective and indefinable instrumentation pushed them, along with Labradford, into the word of composition. Brian McBride, one-half of the group, due to release an LP later this year, is quick to assert that significant differences exist in the approach of the two bands.
"I do think we're composers," he says reluctantly. "There's some pretentiousness associated with that word, which I think is part of the reason we probably haven't embraced that for a long time, but that's really what's going on. It's almost exclusively about the arrangement -- taking something simple and evolving."
In 1998, Kranky uncovered their most grandiose instrumental act yet in the form of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, a nine-piece epic rock ensemble from Montreal. GYBE! delivers string-driven ambience, mysterious field recordings, tribal percussive interplay, and heroic melodic themes, at times igniting in a visceral display of overwhelming magnitude. After two albums and one EP, they've become one of today's most-talked-about bands, as much for their tireless live performances as their rich recorded output.
The dichotomy between the old-world elegance of classical string instrumentation and the more physical rock groove has been explored in other circles as well, most notably by innovative chamber rockers Rachel's and local improvised chamber trio Cinders. Kranky's Adams embraces the cyclical nature of music as it pertains to today's instrumental rock assemblage, citing a variety of influences on his label's bands.
"These little streams of music that sort of float around underground that nobody noticed at the time sort of sprung back up again," says Adams, citing austere Eastern European composer Pärt, Houston psychedelic veterans Charalambides, and Eighties deep sleepers Zoviet France, Pell Mell, and Savage Republic as influences on many of his label's bands.
Another obvious influence, most clearly in the case of Kranky sevenpiece Fontanelle, whose undulating stew is resolutely Can-meets-Bitches Brew, would be the jittery ambience of Seventies Krautrock bands like Faust, Cluster, and Neu!, as well as a number of more shadowy forbears. It's no coincidence that the Kranky stable, as well as Tortoise and other like-minded bands, instrumental or otherwise, began to appear shortly after the reissue of many influential Seventies albums.
"One of the important reasons why music changed is that the changeover from vinyl to CD encouraged people to make those bands and their music available again," says Adams.
Thirty Three Degrees' Coleman agrees. The 1995 opening of the Guadalupe-bound local record store coincided with the final phases of the CD reissue boom, and suddenly all the musicians and musicheads had a place to go that stocked not only the entire Kranky and Thrill Jockey catalogs, but also the oft-referenced Krautrock bands, modern composers, and other underground Seventies psychedelia.
"The ability to get it out and into the stores as a product is a big deal," says Coleman. "A band like Tortoise perhaps was a bit ahead of the curve on that trend. Maybe a lot of the bands they've been inspired by weren't on CD just yet. But typically, musicians tend to have more obscure taste ... that's why people look to them for what to think is cool.
"It's not like they had any revelatory insights that nobody else did. But they put it into action, which is really important."
While it's clear that at this point there's little radically new musical ground left to mine, the proliferation of instrumental bands has left us with many fresh combinations of sound: the mutated dub of Sub Oslo, the mad primal thump of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the great Western cosmology of Friends of Dean Martinez.
"Today, in this age, I'm so happy to see all this bleeding over, all these weird conglomerates," says Croley, whose upcoming bookings include Tortoise, Mouse on Mars, Mogwai, and influential electronic soundsmiths Autechre. "I think the new form of music will come from, like any other music, the old forms jumbled together."
Coleman believes it all comes full circle, that the next epiphany is just around the corner.
"People will always want to be different than the people that came before them," he explains. "If the people that came before them are singing, then someone is going to say, 'Singing isn't cool, and we should just play instrumentals.'
"If punk rock isn't cool anymore, people yelling and screaming and being coked up, then people are going to smoke pot and take downers and relax, and that's when you get stuff like Tortoise."
One never can be sure when the next Rite of Spring will happen; the next Melodica; the next Denton; the next Richmond; the next plastic bag floating in the wind. One can only be sure that it will -- someday, in some new form.
"What's cool now," says Coleman, "is that there's always something around the corner that will seem really revelatory and will open our eyes in a completely different way. It's already happening now somewhere, wherever it is, and we just don't know about it. And it will probably make the stuff that we're talking about now sound old-hat."