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