The Skaters, the hyper-prolific project of
San Francisco's duo Spencer Clark and James Ferraro indulged in
the barbaric, primitive, screamed, improvised noisefests (with an emphasis
on vocal collages) of
Dark Rye Bread (Humbug, 2004),
Palm Shaper (2004),
Rippling Whispers (2004),
Pavilionous Miracles Of Circular Facet Dice (Chocolate Monk, 2005)
Gambling In Ohpa's Shadow (PseudoArcana, 2005),
The Skaters (American Tapes, 2005),
Receding Smokebath (2005),
Mountain of Signs (2005),
Pavilionous Miracles of Circular Facet Dice (2005),
Gambling in Ohpa's Shadow (Pseudo Arcana, 2005), containing Lattice Pursed Lips,
Talking Head (2006),
Raising Spheres Of Crossing Angel Minds (New Age Cassettes, 2006),
Dispersed Royalty Ornaments (2007),
The EP Wind Drapeing Incense/ Dripping Avenues (2006) contains the two namesake suites,
Wind Drapeing Incense is in six movements and alternates between echoes of old British gothic-industrial music (Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound), especially the second movement, Chinese-style ceremonial music and distorted ghostly drones.
Dripping Avenues is a tribal exotic dance that morphs into an old-fashioned wall of noise; all amateurish and derivative.
Mountaineer Skyness Of Majestic Planes (Pacific City Studios, 2008)
contains two untitled 20-minute suites. The first one opens with the moaning of damned souls in hell. The howling and shrieking increases but slowly loses its
"human" register and becomes simply a sinister revolving black hole of dissonant drones.
The second piece is a symphony of distorted drones laid over some
tribal drumming (hidden deep in the mix). Slowly, a multitude of voices emerges from the miasma.
The sound is just a bit less claustrophobic in
The Physicalities Of The Sensibilites Of Ingrediential Stairways (2008),
containing five pieces. Tribal drums and strident videogame noise permeate the
first movement. The second is nine dense minutes of harrowing drones and metallic noise. In the third one drums meet bagpipes and Buddhist recitation in a chaotic setting until the voice gets completely warped into noise.
The fourth one is a nine-minute symphony of warped hallucinogenic drones
hiding beastly shamanic invocations until a relatively bucolic coda of folkish
whistles and metronomic chirping.
The fifth one is a ten minutes of manic drumming and tidal noise,
reminiscent of the performances of
Crash Worship in the 1990s.
Each Skaters recording is basically a pre-linguistic concept.
Spencer Clark had his own solo career under numerous monikers.
Ferraro then created
Lamborghini Crystal, whose 1992 Cool Runnings (New Age Tapes, 2006),
re-released as Grippers Nother Onesers - Live At Slimer Beach (2009),
sounded like a parody of the rock music of the 1970s.
Again, the production was ridiculously lo-fi.
Alien Breeze Transistor opens with a few seconds of the
theme of the film Ghostbusters but then morphs into an insane acid-folk litany.
A decent melody is buried in another acid-folk number,
Overjuiced Suicidal Leather Cupid, and the
gentle country shuffle Highway Nightstalker Overture
has its share of melodic appeal.
These could be nuggets from a lost
Syd Barrett album, if only they were
(but not even Barrett would have come up with a warped ballad like Big Radio Circus Midget).
Then there are the guitar-based hard-rock rave-ups of After Dark Cravings and Stone Cold CVS Grip,
and the garage-rock epilepsy of Glue Sniffing Prowler.
And then there are surreal clownish numbers such as Feed The Shadow.
Far from being consistent, the album is at least three albums into one:
the album of a very stoned singer-songwriter, the album of a garage band,
and the album of a madcap satirist.
then released Alien Microwave 8.3 (New Age Tapes, 2007), which contains
eleven instrumental twisted guitarscapes (such as Midway Video) and the 16-minute Goro Kralth,
and an endless series of cassettes containing lengthy untitled suites of
those twisted instrumentals,
such as Clock Tower Acid (2007),
Little Deuce Coupe TV Dinners (2007),
Roach Motel (2007), mostly sung instead of instrumental,
Smoking Out His Majesties U.F.O. (2007),
Dial 747-Creepozoid (2007).
The hyper-hyper-hyper-prolific James Ferraro later released lots of alien ambient music, for example
Clear (Holy Mountain, 2008), which contains
Clear 1 (17:02), made of
gentle lengthy drones that ebb and flow, interlock
and merge, and that mimic Indian "om"s, and
Clear 2 (16:52), that sounds like a guitar trasposition of
Terry Riley's Rainbow In Curved Air
with the addition of frantic drums;
and Discovery (Holy Mountain, 2008),
containing a rather tedious 39-minute suite that gets sligthly more dense as
drones take over the percussion and as the tones approximate the human voice.
For those who never heard
Brian Eno's Music For Airports (1979),
Harold Budd's Pavilion Of Dreams (1978),
Jon Hassell's Dream Theory In Malaya (1981),
Robert Rich's Somnium (2001),
or even Autechre's Tri Repetae (1996),
they were a revelation.
Marble Surf (2008) contains two lengthy pieces: Memory Theater (19:13), a loop of simple guitar phrases that have been electronically twisted, for an effect similar to the new-age music of the 1970s, and Surf Washing on Spring Marble (19:05), which sounds like the exact same piece as the previous one except that there is a progression of sorts towards a symphonic apotheosis.
Last American Hero (Dreamtime Taped Sounds, 2008 - Olde English Spelling Bee, 2010) contains the hypnotic repetition for guitar tinkling of F-150 Night Eros At Highways End (11:58), the even more algorithmic Blacktop Tumble Weed (08:54), which adds a fluttering Terry Riley-ian organ, and the dreamy bluesy guitarspace of Headlines (Access Hollywood) (07:15). The original cassette also included Adrenaline, a more lively 20-minute version of the same concept of repetition that towards the end undergoes some tedious metamorphosis.
These were mostly disposable derivative ideas for the generation born after
1980 that had missed the originals.
The 43-minute collage of Multitopia (Holy Mountain, 2008) assembles a
loop of distorted garage-rock, warped samples, found percussion, dark ominous drones, and then more frantic samples, noise and percussion, and then 22 more minutes of the same childish chaos.
On Air (Underwater Peoples, 2009) was the first release with structured
(and titled) compositions.
All these recordings were extremely amateurish and lo-fi.
In the summer of 2009, while in Belgium, Ferraro carried out an odd experiment,
self-inducing hypocapnia (choking oneself) and then composing music based on
the companion hallucinations. This "Summer Headrush Series" consists of
Body Fusion 1 and 2 (Muscleworks, 2009), containing a total of ten
pieces of length varying from a few seconds to more than 30 minutes,
iAsia (2009), which contains
107.7 Radio XM Mars (25:08),
Happy HD Bengal (25:31) and
Casino Neptune (29:13),
Wild World (2009), which contains two untitled pieces,
Son of Dracula (2009), ditto, Hacker Track (2009), which contains two lengthy pieces titled Hack your Mind,
the three-hour Rerex (Muscleworks, 2009), reissued as three LPs,
and Pixarni (Muscleworks, 2010), mainly containing the
27-minute Unknown Visitors, a symphony of undulating
drones, mixed with found sounds, that initially evokes the cosmic suspense of
Klaus Schulze's Irrlicht
but then relaxes in a contemplative mood, and, after about 18 minutes,
morphs into an industrial sonata of metallic percussion and then into many
other things until it fades away as a trance-like chant.
And so forth. Ferraro found a way to create "music" at industrial scale.
At best, in Unknown Visitors and parts of Rerex, the music evokes solitude in vast interstellar spaces.
To make things worse, Ferraro was also active under more than 20 monikers.
The project K2 debuted with
Chameleon Ballet (Olde English Spelling Bee, 2008),
which sounds like the soundtrack for a dystopian post-apocalyptic movie.
After the overture of Evaporating Night Rose (a rather pointless repetition of synth patterns), the thick chaotic, wildly dissonant, audio whirlwind of the twelve-minute Subterreanen Pipe Dream truly catapults the listener
into a nightmare.
Alas, Sewer-Scape begins with an intriguing idea (like a
John Carpenter synth-horror sountrack fueld by a charging beat) but then simply
keeps repeating it for 15 long minutes; and Encounter Area is even less
Sure enough this K2 album was immediately followed by an avalanche of mediocre releases credited to the same K2 moniker: Symbio-Dome (2008), Silicon Oasis (2008), Encinoman - Cryogenic Awakening (2008), Dianetic Biodome (2008), etc.
Jarvid 9 was a sci-fi project in three colossal volumes:
Kava Jar Race (New Age Tapes, 2009), containing
seven lengthy pieces for a total of two hours and a half,
Gecko (2009), also containing
seven lengthy pieces for a total of two hours and a half, and
Flushpipe (2009), containing
seven lengthy pieces for a total of two hours.
KFC City 3099's Pt.1 Toxic Spill (2009) lasts more than 70 minutes. . . .
And so forth.
Suddenly, Ferraro turned to crafting bizarre retro-parodies
of fashionable styles of past decades on
Night Dolls With Hairspray (Olde English Spelling Bee, 2011),
sounding like Frank Zappa at his most irreverent,
and finally demonstrating a melodic talent.
Dollhouse Frotteur sounds like a series of funny variations on
Charpentier's Te Deum.
Runaway sounds like a Christmas ditty sung by a child.
Leather High School is a breezy punk-pop tirade.
Killer Nerd harkens back to the age of goth-rock
(Siouxsie Sioux and the likes) but tinged
with that Zappa-esque vice of wild exaggeration.
Here and there, one can even pick up echoes of Abba's disco-pop.
In between these catchy songs there are madcap instrumental intermezzos such as
Lipstick On Ants and Roaches Watch TV.
Compared with Ferraro's early works, this is a painstakingly composed
and arranged album.
Too bad that the voices are so criminally filtered and distorted
(perhaps betraying the perverted influence of the Residents).
Many of these songs could have been dance-pop classics.
Another dramatic change of style was in the making:
the lo-fi instrumental album Far Side Virtual (Hippos in Tanks, 2011), created with a software application and meant to be experienced on mobile phones as a library of ringtones, became a sensation and pioneered vaporwave.
Located somewhere between Frank Zappa's plastic music of the 1960s and
Claude Debussy's piano watercolors of the 19th century,
and maybe the French theater of the absurd of the 20th century,
by aggressive videogame soundtracks and bombastic commercial jingles,
these brief instrumental vignettes employed a novel production technique, all unbalanced and ugly, deliberately annoying, a sort of frenzied and scruffy process of consuming, recycling and dumping.
The epileptic minimalist repetition and hysterical electronic drones of
Linden Dollars sets the tone for the rest.
The clownish minimalist repetition, mixed
with the sound of water and ringing phones,
of PIXARnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell is the manifesto
of the absurdist element.
The repetition is even more creative and emotional, almost worthy of
Michael Nyman's chamber music,
in Adventures in Green Foot Printing for piano and vocals.
These distantly heroic, gentle and nostalgic minimalist pieces evoke a less exotic but not less surreal version of the Penguin Cafè Orchestra.
Some of the pieces are shamelessly banal and derivative, like
Dubai Dream Tone that ends with the refrain of Umberto Tozzi's Gloria.
Dream On sounds like the coda to a classic pop song, except that we never heard the refrain.
The "songs" are unstable despite their apparent simplicity: the
psychedelic and jazzy ambient Bags ends up with a
cabarettish synth-driven march;
Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi lays a collage of spoken word fragments over an electric pulsation and then lets it metabolize.
This is also a music of silly contrasts, like the way
a robotic dance a` la New Order and symphonic strings collide in Fro Yo and Cellular Bits, or the way a sci-fi delirium is interrupted by syncopated beats in Solar Panel Smile.
Starbucks, Dr Seussism, and While Your Mac Is Sleeping alternates
between neoclassical music, synth-pop and cartoon soundtracks.
Ferraro's main skill is to smooth out the transitions, so that a piece can be many things at the same time while always sounding perfectly unified, notably in the psychotic metamorphoses of the "Chinese" motif of Earth Minutes that at one point sounds like a grandiose Vangelis soundtrack and at another sounds like a silly videogame soundtrack.
He injects humor in every "song"
The clownish overtones of concoctions like Google Poeises are reminiscent more of Todd Rundgren's sarcastic A Wizard/True Star (1973) than of Brian Eno's austere Another Green World (1975).
The exception are at the end: Condo Pets, a sinister shuffle that exudes existential gloom.
Far from being a form of ambient music, these pieces sound like insults thrown
at Brian Eno's original program.
Ferraro's career mutated again as he fell under the influence
of hip-hop music starting with the mixtapes
Inhale C-4 $$$$$$$ (2011), credited to Bebetune$,
and (to a lesser extent) Silica Gel (2012), credited to Bodyguard,
and then fell under the influence of
contemporary soul music (now confusingly called "r'n'b" even though it has nothing to do with rhythm and blues) on
Sushi (Hippos in Tanks, 2012).
NYC Hell 3:00 AM (2013) in the vein of the digital bedroom singer-songwriter seemed to open yet another front in Ferraro's career.
Skid Row (2015) was its Los Angeles counterpart.
Both exuded the existential angst of lonely lives in the dystopian metropolis.
The dystopian concept album
Human Story 3 (2016), instead, sounded like a return to the lighter tones
of Far Side Virtual; unfortunately, it also sounded more like a radio
play than a work of music. Luckily, he didn't sing on this one.
The five-song EP Troll (2017) sounded like leftovers from the album.
The 26-minute piece Anthrospray - Music for Extinction Renaissance (2017)was originally released on "memory sticks" and was based on a long sci-fi poem written by himself.
Like John Cage before him, Ferraro was becoming more of a conceptual artist
(and sometimes justs a prankster) than a composer of music.
The EP Four Pieces for Mirai (2018) collects moody electronic instrumentals.
The seven-minute Green Hill Cross is little more than atmospheric new-age music that towards the end picks up a house beat.
The eight-minute Butterfly is slightly more engaging with its nods to
neoclassical music, its gothic overtones, and its melodic finale.
If the nine-minute Mirai is too messy and arbitrary,
the eight-minute Remnant intones a well-mannered, neoclassical,
Tchaikovsky-ian, tiptoeing dance that turns into a solemn synth agony.
In 2018 Ferraro premiered an opera titled "Plague", followed by the
one-hour Requiem for Recycled Earth (2019), both rather tedious
but revealing neo-classical ambitions.
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