Roswell Radio Cult -The Fucked Up Beat

In the 1880s, in Hawaii, a Californian physician working at a hospital for lepers injected twelve girls under the age of 12 with syphilis. 

‘Beautiful oddness’ -Roswell Radio Cult

There is a quote, attributed variously to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, Laurie Anderson and that tireless epigram machine Mr -or Ms- Apocryphal that neatly summarises the thankless task that I have set for myself. ‘Writing about music’, they all (apparently) say, ‘is like dancing about architecture’.

Whoever said it, the quote is damned accurate. Trying to express sound through words is very difficult to do accurately, near impossible to do excellently. It’s for that reason that genres, and sub-genres and fusions thereof have become so necessary.

They’re still inadequate.

In 1908, three Philadelphia researchers infected dozens of children with tuberculin at the St. Vincent’s House orphanage in Philadelphia, causing permanent blindness in some of the children and painful lesions and inflammation of the eyes in many of the others. In the study they refer to the children as “material used”

The Fucked Up Beat, a project of Eddie Palmer and Brett Zehner of New York and San Diego respectively has applied the label Experimental Schizo Noir Trip Hop, which barely covers half of it. Their latest release, Roswell Radio Cult, out now on HAZE, is a defiantly obscure soup of sounds, encompassing repeated string sweeps, samba-esque guitar and drum lines and repetitive voice samples. It is undeniably experimental, appreciably schizo, noirish as monochrome coffee and, through its downtempo fusion of nocturnal styles, unimpeachably trip hop.

One of those examples of extended listening that offers more with every return to the headphones, Roswell Radio Cult is an experience not unlike half-dozing through a series of once banned B-movies on a dodgy b&w set requiring an occasional slap just to keep going. The lo-fi sound, accompanied by a warm analogue crackle makes it feel like an artefact, something that works better on rediscovery than it does at first find.

 In 1941 Dr. William C. Black inoculated a twelve-month old baby “offered as a volunteer” with herpes. He submitted his research to The Journal of Experimental Medicine and it was rejected on ethical grounds. The editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Francis Payton Rous, called the experiment “an abuse of power, an infringement of the rights of an individual, and not excusable because the illness which followed had implications for science.” It was later published in the Journal of Pediatrics. 

The work’s aesthetic extends to its cover art and track titles. Hearken:

The Terror From Beyond!/ Who Traveled Down Highways Of Space And Time 
Roswell Blues/ Weeping And Undressing While The Sirens Of Los Alamos Wailed Them Down 
Radio Cult/ Who Disappeared Into The Volcanoes Of Mexico
Flagstaff Crop Circles/ 9 11 Mothman Found Alive In Arizona Desert 
The Dark Fields Of Nevada/ Who Dreamt And Made Incarnate Gaps In Time And Space 
The Odyssey Of Flight 33/ We Build Ancient Ruins! 
Mystery Aircraft Lost In Fog Over California Canyons / Holy The Stock Market Filled With The Millions! 
Our Quiet Little Town Is Now Made Up Of Phantoms/ Now The Desert Is Lonesome For Heroes 
The Groom Lake Flatwoods Monster/ I’d Like Some Gasoline Please! 
Small Town In Texas Vanishes Overnight/ Little Green Men

It’s impressionistic, redolent of 50s sci-fi, conspiracies and the persistent romantic oddness of New Mexico. Palmer and Zehener live in opposite corners of the contiguous states, and communicate by email. Despite the not-necessarily-as-the-crow-flies nature of modern communications, it’s tempting to picture some of the spirit of NM being absorbed into their sound as it makes its cross country development.

The Fucked Up Beat -experimental, schizo, noir trip hop

The experiments included a wide array of studies, involving things like feeding radioactive food to mentally disabled children or conscientious objectors, inserting radium rods into the noses of schoolchildren, deliberately releasing radioactive chemicals over U.S. and Canadian cities, measuring the health effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests, injecting pregnant women and babies with radioactive chemicals, and irradiating the testicles of prison inmates, amongst other things. 

Compounding Roswell Radio Cult’s beautiful oddness is the release notes. A collection of reports of cruel psychological and medical experiments, particularly on children, they make for 1700 words of uncomfortable reading. They do, however, suit the dark aesthetic of grim science fiction in which the government, the military, the scientific community are agents of malevolence, to be mistrusted and from whom you’d be advised to flee as quickly and as silently as you can.

Much information about these programs was classified and kept secret. In 1986 the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report entitled “American nuclear guinea pigs : three decades of radiation experiments on U.S. citizens”. In the 1990s Eileen Welsome’s reports for The Albuquerque Tribune prompted the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, created by executive order of president Bill Clinton. It published results in 1995. Welsome later wrote a book called The Plutonium Files.

The text is presented without comment. Any connection between it and the record is to be inferred by the listener. This is how it should be. Roswell Radio Cult is an album of suggestion, a sound implicit rather than explicit and utterly defiant of explanation. In such cases, it’s often as helpful to put on some tap shoes for le Corbusier, or simply recommend that the reader simply listen for himself.

Roswell Radio Cult is out now on HAZE. It’s also available via Bandcamp

Review: ZoID -Selected ZoIDworks 05-12

Some years ago, a couple of friends and I coined the term ‘a bit jazz’ to mean a heavy session. We’d use it to describe the partying habits of the bands we liked (we were very big on Primal Scream in those days), as well as some of our larger weekends. And weeks. And months for that matter. The term came from jazz musicians, rather than jazz music, the Charlie Parker whose corpse was mistaken for that of a fifty-four, rather than thirty-four, year old man.

Philistinism? Sure. But there is something in jazz music, in its rhythms and time signatures that suggest a fluidity or absence of discipline. It’s a paradox of course, it takes an awful lot of skill to sound this loose. We deluded ourselves that it took similar skill to make a Friday night last three days.

Skill is something that Daniel Jacobson has in spades. A classically trained jazz musician, he applies the form of jazz to electronic music and does so wonderfully. His new album, recorded under the alias ZoID, has just been released on the Invisible Agent label. Calling it Selected ZoIDworks 05-12 is an obvious nod to a certain well regarded twenty-odd year old album, but it almost does it a disservice. ZoID’s album has no need to lurk in the shadows of any other. It’s a perfectly balanced and wonderfully controlled blend of beats, glitches and textures on a bed of jazzy rhythms, put together with superb artistic restraint.

Opening track Aerosoul sets the standard. It’s a smooth, nocturnal jazz piece, boasting a gently snaking guitar melody. Next, the chiming, insistent Phroph brings beats to the fore. They’re crisp and satisfying but without overpowering the gentle ambient synth bed.

Acid Leaves, which features the late Bruce Morley is more rhythmically violent, lurching from acid breaks to classical guitar in what can probably be best described [by me] as a ‘space invader sound stew’. Particle Dither throws jagged but squelchy beats at a heavy synth sound. Both win.

Obelisk brings the guitar back to face off against a frantic, echoey beat that seems to swirl around it. Cember is nice and glitchy. Beats whiplash, crunch and clatter while a pulsating rhythm builds beneath them.

East Pier Early Morning is more traditionally metronomic. An ambient piece with tight beats layered on top, it sounds simple at first, but only at first. Like the rest of the album it benefits from the skilful discipline of its maker.

Jwrong begins beautifully with plaintive whine that is soon joined by jazzy drums that clatter and tumble through the rest of the track.

Bluesqueek earned double figure listens within the first few hours of my having the album. Beginning with dampened beats, like a heart that is about to break, it blends a squelchy sound with cleaner synthesiser tones in a perfectly judged mix.

The beginning of Munch is, for me, the album’s sole misstep. A burst of distorted static noise, it’s a collection of glitchy sound effects that create a sense of violence that is at odds with the rest of the album. It settles after a couple of minutes and reaches a stronger sense of purpose, letting the album finish with its signature mix of beats and ambient synths.

This album is a real joy. The odd time signatures add a pleasingly unsteady organic quality that complements the crisp artificial beats. The album’s main strength, aside from its talented maker, is that it uses jazz to contextualise its electronic elements. I’ve long had a problem with the term ‘dance music’ as a catch-all for anything electronic, not least because you can’t even dance to music like this. Jazz, with its tendencies towards experimentation and rule-breaking is a much better home. SZw05-12 shows us why. It’s ‘a bit jazz’, in a rather better sense of the word that I had it before.

Interview: Chris Bryant -S1gns Of L1fe

Towards the beginning of his 1993 book Ocean of Sound, David Toop quotes the New Scientist reporting from an academic conference in Cairns. A member of the American Rock Art Research Association had speculated that Palaeolithic paintings were intentionally related to the acoustic echoes found in the caves in which they were created.  The theorist, Steven Waller, suggested that ‘in caves such as Lascaux, where large animals were painted, the echoes are overwhelmingly loud, whereas in sites where felines adorn the walls, the decibel level of the reverberations is very low’.

A beautiful theory, not least because it reflects the continuing relationship between visual art, music and the natural world. It’s an ancient, elemental relationship that defies anything as artificial as musical notation or as coldly descriptive as the term ‘audio-visual’.

It’s a connection that underscores the work of Chris Bryant, an artist, music teacher and musician who releases his ambient album Language of the Ancients under the moniker S1gns Of L1fe tomorrow. ‘Each song that I create is like painting’, he tells me via email from his home in the Bay Area of California, ‘the sound is my canvas and I start painting with it. I begin by laying down “textures” which become my foundation. I then let the track decide where it wants to go.

Diversity is important. ‘If I feel percussion should be involved, I start crafting it around the initial sound. Like I said, it’s all about contrast. Most of my music on this album is what you could call “rhythmic ambient” which centres percussive elements on deep atmosphere’.


Language of the Ancients. It’s a good title, I tell him. Is it that commonality that you’re trying to describe –that we share with the ancients the common language of the environment, biology and astronomy? ‘It derives its meaning from the relationship we all share with both nature and the modern world through vibration and sound. Its roots [lie] in the ambience of the natural world as well as the interconnectedness of the universe and the scientific systems that we use to explain it.’ The redwoods that illustrate the album’s cover are symbolic of these ideas. ‘They have seen so many seasons, seen entire civilisations come and go and still they remain steadfast in their continual role in our ecosystem’, he tells me.

He is an enthusiastic interviewee. The project is very, very dear to him and he appears delighted, almost relieved, to be asked to talk about it. A simple one-line question yields a response running to several paragraphs and hundreds of words. I draw the assumption that Bryant’s head contains a universe of ideas, desperate to find expression through whatever means it can. Even if it takes ten years.

The album marks the culmination of a decade-long journey. 2003 was a particularly low point. ‘I was broke, living out of my pickup truck and playing acoustic guitar on the streets for anyone who would listen. To say I’ve taken the difficult and windy road would be a complete understatement.’ There was always music, at least. ‘I’ve been a musician all my life and released other projects in different genres. My musical journey began a long time ago when I was only nine years old listening to mostly metal. My first exposure to anything electronic was in high school when I heard The Orb for the first time. It blew my mind how much of an extraordinary sonic universe Alex Paterson could create. I had absolutely no idea how it was created but nevertheless, it was captivating at the time.’

Bryant is a guitarist of long experience and with talent enough to teach.  ‘I started with one student on Craigslist. Eventually the mother of that student told another parent about me. I knew I was on to something. I started teaching at various recreation departments in the Bay Area as well as a private music school. That period went on for a good four years until I met my wife.


Chris Bryant: Never knowingly mistaken for Kenny Rogers

Jeanne was actually a student in my guitar class. She signed up for one of my adult classes with the best intentions. First of all, she had no experience and therefore no expectations. Secondly, she was happy I wasn’t a “Kenny Rogers” lookalike. The only problem was, she was the only one who signed up for the class! Feeling guilty I wouldn’t be compensated properly for my time, she begged me to cancel it. She was too good to be true. I ended up not cancelling the class and teaching her the entire eight weeks. We both had no idea we’d eventually fall in love and get married but that’s exactly what happened.

A year into our relationship, we knew in order to take my guitar instruction to the next level, we had to move the business to a centralised location. In 2009, we found an office to rent in my hometown of Los Gatos and opened up “Chris Bryant Guitar School” and the rest is history. We’re going on our fourth year of successful business here.

Teaching not only provided necessary funds for living, but as any good teacher will tell you, through teaching you begin to learn who you are as both a musician and as a person. It is a very enlightening process if you allow it to be.’

Still, the vast possibilities opened up by electronic and computer music soon eclipsed his love of six strings. ‘I began to dabble in electronic around the year 2001. Software was still primitive by today’s standards, but it was still amazing to me how what was once done only with hardware, was now moving into the software realm.’

A specialisation in ambient was a logical progression, the result of an innocuous conversation with a friend,  musician and producer, audiophalanx. ‘We were standing outside of a Thai restaurant talking about “what’s next” for us, discussing software and the tools we use to create it. He looks at me and says “Have you ever heard the music of Solar Fields?” I nearly collapsed.’

It was at that very moment I knew what I wanted to do. I had been listening to Solar Fields for quite some time but it wasn’t until he said something that it I realised it, I should be making ambient music!’

He began to immerse himself in ambient production. ‘The software, the artists currently involved in it. I dug out old serial numbers of software that I had bought years prior and contacting software companies asking if my licenses were still valid.

However, I needed more time and more tools to perfect my craft and develop my own style. It wasn’t until I found a little known software project called Borderlands by a Stanford post-grad student named Chris Carlson that my style began to take form.’

He has nothing but praise for Carlson’s software. ‘It’s a granular sampler like no other. It allows you visually place waveforms on the screen while at the same time placing “clouds” -the granular engines themselves, at any point along the waveform. You can move them around, duplicate them, it’s an astonishing piece of software.’

This ease of production helps Bryant’s creative process. ‘I try and let everything else go while I’m working. I have listened to so much music that I feel like I’m pulling out memories, without even thinking about it, every time I sit down and start writing. Just like painting, I have developed a sense of what colours/sound textures work well together. I’m becoming more critical these days which doesn’t speed up my writing process, but it does help polish up the final outcome’.

The future looks bright. After Language of the Ancients, Bryant will be releasing music through Arecibo Records, an ambient netlabel based in Spain, sharing a roster with other ambient artists such as Massergy, Hilyard, Spidergod, and Rildrim.

Aside from that, there’s ambient online, a forum that Bryant describes as a ‘haven for other ambient producers to come and not only discuss ambient music, but share their work and discuss production methods as well.’ Bryant started the site with some ambient producers in October 2012. He’s proud of the reach it has found since launching. ‘It has quickly become the fastest growing and number one resource for ambient music on the internet. On any given day you can find 20 to 30 active conversations going on by people who live and breathe ambient music.’

Living and breathing. Painting and composing. The conversations may be digital, but the pattern remains the same. Groups of people gathering through sound, creating and imagining, just as they did in those caves seventeen centuries ago. The language of the ancients. The language of now.

Language of the Ancients is released through Bandcamp on the 23rd January.

MR. Wi$E: Narrative Mixing First Movement, Land

This is interesting. It’s a project from MR Wi$E, a DJ in the US. There’s an awful lot of work gone into it. It deserves to be listened to properly.

narrative mixing cover art updated2

I’d given it a few blasts from my laptop but it wasn’t until I’d followed the artist’s recommendation and downloaded it for portable play that it really came into its own. It is, resolutely, music for headphones.

I listened, properly listened, to it on a lunchbreak, while walking through the snow into the city centre. Sludge-sliding along Granby Street, past the chicken takeaways and retail shops being converted into betting ones, I gave it a proper audience. The hood of my parka was up and buttoned at the front, creating a mini soundbooth. The air was cold and damp. It was perfect.

There is an idea that snowfall makes everything unreal. A white superlayer that changes everything, making it all seem familiar but unrecognisable. Prettified. The opposite is actually true. Once the white starts to melt it becomes slushy and filthy. Taking care not to slip, it’s impossible not to become more acutely aware of the hard physical reality of the environment. Splashes of greybrown muck cling to your clothing. Like it or not, you’re going to get wet. The environment becomes you. And the clean, austere synthetic ambient of tradition is replaced by the messy, disparate ambient of reality.

Land is the ambient of reality. It is a collection of sounds and samples that have been picked up from all manner of places (most were gathered from freesound) and woven together into a coherent whole.

Sound collages have been done before, most famously on The White Album. Lennon’s Revolution 9 was an audacious and largely successful attempt to place Stockhausen-style musique concrète in millions of homes. As a piece though, it’s something of a mess. Formless and cacophonous (which was actually probably the point), it showed that a sound collage can be done, without doing anything with it.

A later work, The KLF Chill Out, applied the technique to a stronger narrative, suggesting a journey around the Gulf Coast, accompanied by a fleeting listens to Acker Bilk, Elvis and some Tuvan throat singers. Land achieves the same effect, and easily places itself the equal, if not superior of it. There’s so much going on here –it’s a really rich listening experience. It took over 200 hours to put together, and the effort really shows. It is a work of utter craftsmanship. Two more movements are in the pipeline, and although I’d say that I can’t wait to hear them, I’m happy for him to take his time making them.

What impresses most is the artistry involved. The different sounds blend together almost imperceptibly, as they do in real life. Music, traditional music in the sense of rhythm and melody, appears and disappears, but always with narrative justification. It’s a remarkable achievement, essentially an album featuring diegetic music. A track is heard, partially, on a car stereo that first has to be tuned. Later on, the listener attends a gig. The ears are enveloped by the echolalia of the expectant audience, before a powerfully sung version of When a Man Loves a Woman is heard in its entirety, from the first playful jabs at the piano keys to the fade of the applause at the end.

The headphone element adds so much to the experience. Binaural features shape the sound to craft a feeling of a real environment, while the closeness of the listening experience gives it an intimate feel. The channel differences create the effect of actually being at the show, the vocals clearer than the piano. Doors open and close. You even feel as though you’ve not quite got the best seats in the house. Reality over perfection again. Actuality, not artifice.

Talking of the real, the sound effects are as affecting as the music. From footsteps on pavements to falling rain, the rapid zap of radio stations being changed to a man scat-singing to himself, they are the sounds of the everyday made curiously into music. Listening so closely makes them feel somehow hyperreal, like you’re hearing them in a ways you haven’t done before. Which of course, you are.

What it means is that when actual music does kick in, as it does with the funky R&B on the car stereo, it feels especially vivid. That said, you never fully escape music in this piece, it’s always there in the background, whether emanating from a recognisable source, such a a busker, or as a slow piano thread, holding it all together.

It’s just like a real city of course. Which takes me back to my snowbound walk. It took me about ten minutes to reach town proper, taking in Gallowtree Gate, Humberstone Gate and Charles Street, at the bus station. Rather dull, prosaic streets that I must have walked down a thousand times. An ideal arena for this tapestry of ordinariness. Rather more so than I’d thought.

Later, reading the list of sound samples I saw this:

S: Charles Street Bus Station 10.03.2012(24-bit 44.1kHz).wav by LeicesterSoundmap | License: Creative Commons 0

The same Charles Street, the same Bus Station. Some guy living thousands of miles away created a collage of sound using some of the noise of my own city, lifted from the very street on which I listened to it.

Happenstance. Wonderful happenstance.

You’ll find the whole piece up at Soundcloud, and downloadable via Facebook.

Choose life, choose ambient

It started, I suppose with Trainspotting. The soundtrack at least. In 1996 the film was huge in the UK and its bright orange livery was transplanted into teenage bedrooms and bedsits all over the country.


I actually really miss the 90s

It was a pop cultural lodestone, symbiotically linked to the prevailing fashions of the day from Renton’s Addidas Sambas to -heaven help us- ‘heroin chic’. Above all was the music. My brother bought me a cassette tape of the soundtrack. Shot through with Britpop, it featured several of the artists in my teenage sphere –Pulp, Sleeper, Blur; a few who were about to feature very heavily –Primal Scream, Leftfield, Underworld, and a couple about to enjoy a deserved minor resurgence –Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. There was, however, one track that I was delighted that had been included, Deep Blue Day by Brian Eno.


Scotland’s bog-snorkelling training regime was nothing if not thorough

heard the piece during the film itself. It appears early on, during Renton’s dive into the WorstToilet in Scotland. It was a scene that dripped with symbolism, not to mention piss and shit, but it was strangely beautiful. It had been enhanced by the music the dreamy, plaintive Country ambient of Eno.

I loved it. It was so atmospheric and peaceful, but in those days prior to Google (or at least prior to my being able to access Google), and Shazam, I had to wait until I had the soundtrack to check the name of the piece.


It’s rather nice once you get used to it

I suspected it was the one credited to Eno. The name seemed appropriate. Eno. A bit odd, a bit space-y. Of course it was him. (that is not to say that names can be a good indication of sound. The dubby/funky tune that follows it in the album’s running order was credited to Primal Scream, a name that, if you were unfamiliar with them, you would be forgiven for thinking belonged to a heavy metal band).

The song was played and rewound, played and rewound over and over and over again. Eventually plucking up the money to buy its parent album, itself a soundtrack, and listened to it one summer afternoon. The opening piece, Understars evoked space and weightlessness from the very beginning, that low rumble and constellation of sparkly notes. It was like a descent, a beginning of a lifetime of exploring a genre.