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

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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.