Freak Scene #42: Less Freak, More Geek

August 31, 2009

In this week’s Freak Scene, Jamie Johns runs through her favorite releases and shows from Halflings, Pharmakon, Pens, Zola Jesus and John Wiese in the month since her last non-China post.

This week’s Freak Scene will be a little less FREAK than the regular installments, meaning, I think you can actually go out and purchase most of what I talk about this week; it isn’t out of print or only available if you provide a secret code and it isn’t found by digging through obscure distros and hey, most of you have probably heard of these groups before. Sometimes I listen to things other than BDSM lovin’ power electronics and music which hails Satan.

During the huge gap in non-China related Freak Scene coverage, I went to see Pharmakon, Halflings and Alberich perform an early show at Glasslands. There was so much that was right about this evening, starting with the righteous $5 cover and ending with three great performances, even though I made the mistake of wearing floral and hanging my head in shame while I felt the scorn of noise dudes coming at me in my brain. Maybe I was just using that as an excuse to drink. Halflings were first and their performance was brutal, heavy, crude, turbulent…any adjective that describes something impure and/or scary. They have absolutely filthy minds and the music is terrifying, but this performance brought me so much joy. Their music could incite a riot but they are totally in control of the live environment, every sound you hear was placed perfectly to create the most grotesque effect. They have a new record out on RRRecords (!!!!) called Self Esteem that is number one on my to-buy list. It seemed like Pharmakon had some technical difficulties as she kept getting visibly annoyed with her set up, but I thought her performance was great and I cannot wait to see her perform on her home turf. When I first talked about Pharmakon, I mentioned my excitement about her work and her dark, grim and vicious performance only amped that up. Deviant female power electronics: awesome. Alberich, who I was mostly familiar with through the Penis Womb cassette from last year and performer Kris Lapke’s involvement in Ash Pool, invoked the ghosts of noise past in his performance, with William Bennett aviators and a black hat and all.

I never want to be the one to boost female artists because they’re female or to assume that they are invoking some hidden female essence in their work but I sometimes do that. What has struck me so much about the past year or so is the high number of female performers who are taking it somewhere new. I am the same age as most of these ladies and yet they are my new heroes. These are not just girls picking up male tropes and replicating them, but creating a distinctive viewpoint and a new vocabulary. Songs about the body, sexuality, everything else all coming from a new place, often dark. It is not a cohesive movement, in fact, most of these performers have nothing in common, but it is something I have noticed and enjoyed.

One of these women is Zola Jesus, who I have talked about before but whose new full-length on Sacred Bones, The Spoils, warrants maybe about…a billion columns worth of praise and discussion. I don’t even know if she counts as Freak Scene anymore but I love this record. In advance, pardon the hyberbole and the giddy writing, I love this record way too much to appear dignified or impartial. The Spoils is a new direction for Zola Jesus—the palette has expanded and you can hear everything from deviant noise to Kate Bush lurking inside. The music can be cold and dark but never hopeless, which is mostly due to singer Nika Danilova’s voice. I don’t really like to use the word ethereal but, you know, her voice is kind of ethereal. But human too! As her voice warps and wavers over antagonistic beats, the music creates a grey zone where masculine and feminine, dark and light elements crash together. There are redemptive jams like “Six Feet from My Baby” and “Smirenye” next to burned out building apocalyptic songs like “Sink the Dynasty.” I played this record so often at my job that my male co-worker politely asked me to stop and told me that he felt was starting to feel like a teenage girl getting emotional in his room. Danilova even referenced Master-Slave Relationship in a recent interview. Ultimate Freak Scene bonus points.

The FADER has been home to a lot of debate about lo-fi, I place myself in the pro-camp but with (what I hope is) discerning taste. Just because you’re lo-fi doesn’t mean I am going to let you into my heart but at the same time, I’ll probably warm to you a little faster. Pens are bound for a world far beyond the Freak Scene [ed. note: or Dollars to Pounds] but I have been digging their first full lengthHey Friend What You Doing, which will be available from De Stijl on September 15th, too much to not give it a mention here. Three ladies from London who add a layer of fuzz to everything, but it’s not meant to be some kind of statement about kitsch culture or infomercials or anything beyond “just don’t give a fuck,” which is actually a statement too, I guess. They change instruments throughout their shows, the ultimate piss off to the idea of a “master” craft, but the sound never changes. Ramshackle drumming that sounds like it could fall apart if the beer stops flowing, some notes on a Casio, and quick distorted riffs. “High in the Cinema” is the kind of song that could become an anthem for bored kids who make their own trouble, with lyrics like Even though we got no money/ We can always do something.

John Wiese. Sweet, sweet John Wiese. The Renaissance man of noise, beloved by both the academics and the sleazeballs. He is prolific but every release feels essential, including his latest, Circle Snare, from No Fun Productions. To some, noise is noise is noise, it’s all the same. Wrong. His mix of analog tapes, noise, and electronics is distinctive (duh) and wildly different from the kind of impure power electronics that Halflings are doing. It’s cerebral and nuanced (not that PE isn’t) and it will get you pondering the limits of sound. Wiese balances the moments of chaos with bits of calm, however, I can still fist pump to it. Circle Snare is also a big departure (in my mind) from earlier Wiese efforts. Not to sound like a stalker or anything, but the man also has the greatest YouTube channel O.A.T. (of all time.) If you ever wanted to know what a collaboration between C. Spencer Yeh (Burning Star Core) and Coolio (“Gangsta’s Paradise”) would sound like, well, here you go.

Please send me your tapes/LPs/7”s/lathes/CDs/anything else:
Jamie Johns
4304 Lerner Hall
2920 Broadway
New York, NY 11220
I would also appreciate any tips on my fellowship applications, k thx.

From The Collection:

Freak Scene
Freak Scene #42: Less Freak, More Geek