In Shanghai the indie music scene has long been a small affair with only a hand full of venues for artists to perform in. The upside of this kind of small-scale intimacy has often led to a very visible eclectic mix of music standing side by side, free from the constraints of the "which bands go in which venue" debacle of the music scenes in large western cities. However, one downside with Shanghai's intimate music scene is that it is without the necessary scale for movements to really form and define themselves. However one of the more interesting, if not to say, "Movements" but definitely "happenings" which has been taking place is the "Let's get naked and listen to a Bunch of Drones" which has been taking place on odd Thursdays of the month at the infamous city venue, "The Shelter".
Making your way through a dark winding tunnel into the subterranean club that is dimly lit with stark concrete pillars and archways, It has long been true that the shelter's aesthetic has been ripe for diversification into other music styles away from its primary function as a place to go dance and "rave"…ahem… Whilst many could complain about the club's lack of ventilation and subsequent sea of smoke which inevitably forms, the place has an atmosphere, you could say a dark, almost foreboding atmosphere… and it is with that atmosphere in mind that we can start to get under the bonnet of this new compilation record.
The "Let's get naked" record contains a selection of tracks from largely a selection of artists who perform at the live events and who fall under the moniker of one of modern musics more esoteric genres …Drone.
Drone in a sense is the 21st Centuries bastard child that was birthed after popular trends decided anything remotely "new Age/ ambient" or indeed made with a synthesiser was completely pretentious, self indulgent , bloated and well, put simply……out.
With it's origins stemming back to a mix of Western Art music, German 70's Kosmiche music, Ambient, Odd records by the likes of John Cale and of course Brian Eno's seminal Onland record, the genre kind of suffered a popular death during the 80s when it was black listed for being unfairly lumped in with its incense burning, crystal collecting, levitating cousin… "New Age" music.
Difficult as it may be to draw a line in the sand between what technically belongs to ambient/drone/experimental or that of "new age"… it is fair to say that it cannot always be done through sound or instrumentation but rather through catching the intended "function". "New Age" music could be classified entirely on a premise or indeed a pretension that is… the people involved claim that their music can actually help you live well, cure you of mental anxieties and in some extreme cases even cure you of physical ailments… Got your wheat grass and tibetan water bowls handy?
It is with those mental images of people wearing baggy white shirts with names like Astral Beam and Cosmic Radiance passing the low-fat humous to one another that it was only going to be a matter of time before the music equivalent of the NaziSS was going to come and deal with the problem. Alas and so, rather unfairly, true experimental drone/noise/ambient music went deep, deep underground for much of the 80's.
Many artists in the 90s mainly belonging to the electronic spectrum, Aphex Twin, The Orb, Oval, Biosphere etc. all did wonders to bring ambient music back into relevance but it was really in 1993, when Dylan Carlson aka. the man who gifted Kurk Cobain with the shotgun he used to shoot himself, and also being the subject of the Nirvana classic "in bloom" went ahead with his band Earth and released an album called Earth2. Only containing three songs consisting of lengthy instrumentals with little to no percussion. Only heavily distorted, down tuned guitars droning into infinity.
This album was really the catalyst with which Drone was reborn with its all-new, razor sharp fangs. Todays major heavy weights would be the robe wearing titans Sunn0)) (a name with more than a nod to Earth) with their black metal infused evil incantations, their almost bipolar opposites found in the outstanding Stars of the Lid with drones so still and stately that they're like an aural equivalent of Mark Rothko …this all set against an impressive and vital scence from Japan with the likes of Boris and mega titan + longtime noise overlord.. Merzbow keeping both Drone and Noise very visible.
Drone has its feet firmly planted in the canons of extreme metal, post-punk and noise…and is more often than not using guitars rather than synthesisers and is very adamant about making it clear to you that it is not music for relaxation, massages, baths and definitely not Yoga classes! So… yes, it is stylised as a genre and as such often is less than truly experimental but its relevance is found in the fact that it has no message other than wanting to champion the primordial, gut churning power of raw sound and drone…OOOMMMMMM! And it is truly excellent that Shanghai now has an outlet for that kind of music and there couldn't be a better venue than the Shelter for it…perhaps not in acoustic quality but definitely in mood, atmosphere and spirit.
So after all that, how exactly does the music found on the "Let's get Naked" album translate once taken out of the setting of the Shelter? The answer, as indeed with most compilation discs, it's a mixed bag with a few compositions and artists really standing out. One success of the record though is that there is nothing that is either truly terrible nor completely out of place. The full expected gamete is here to behold… Everything from the aforementioned guitar/metal drone with cuts like the Death to Ponies "Broken Glass", a somewhat stark delay drenched guitar set adrift in the cosmos which slowly gets absorbed by high pitched electronics to the Nahash song "New Skin", with its high pitched tortured shrieking vocals and distorted bass line veering into another modern relative of Drone…Doom Metal, before arriving at gloriously sun-scorched droning finale. Elsewhere the first cut on the album RST's "Ode to Space Hassle" occupies the more still and blissful spectrum with it's suspended ringing tones providing a back drop for cosmic winds and a sound that is either a rattly guitar sent through some heavy reverb delay treatments or something completely different.
It is with that point that so many of the compositions on the record excel. The first cut along with Arrebato's "Tango" with a violent, sawing like sound as its central theme and Charm's "Pushkar Passport" are constructed from sounds that are as seemingly familiar as they are unusual and alien. Put in a different way; It's music that is as equally engaging intellectually as it is physically. Other tracks such as Illsee's "Fourth Track" and Noise Arcades "Specific Application" utilises electronics and yes…Synthesisers sent through layers of saturated distortion for a more rhythmic sound providing a complementary variety to the records playing order.
Elsewhere the final track on the album, Apparatus1's "Die Stimme" perhaps is the most intriguing with its futuristic mix of electronic pulses and beats,not to dissimilar to works by Oval or Autechre but altogether darker and more dystopic. This is the track that really evokes images of Shelter for me.
There are some unusual choices on the record. This is not to say that these cuts are bad in anyway but do to stop the record from having any kind of real cohesion. These come in the form of glitchy/sample based, guy with an acoustic guitar and laptop tracks such as Chronmaster's "Living Myth" and Thruotin's "Back to the Patio". As I said, these tracks are anything but bad and will definitely serve as light relief to Non-Drone fans, but at the same time do kind of hint that the "Let's get Naked" scene is struggling to really exist. About Four tracks on the record are indeed quite short and do smack of filler that was sitting on someones hard-drive and got picked up to pad out the time. The most guilty of this has to be American Booze's -Doris Day Shanghai 2, which sounds like nothing more than somebody getting carried away with Guitar Rig plugins on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Finally and perhaps most importantly J+D+C+Q's "Pride Beer (Long Version) is the most encouraging cut on the album, and at 11 minutes and being track 7 of 12, it is definitely the albums centre piece. Composed of all elements that were once considered out of the vogue, droning synthesisers, two eastern tinged wordless female vocal parts, evoking the exotic eastern/arabic scales made fashionable in the late 60s. The track, on paper, bares all the hall marks of standard New-Age music but upon listening is anything but. Dark and highly meditative, it is this brand of drone music that is so utterly modern yet timeless. Away from the Sonic Fascism of shying away from certain instruments or structures, the music is now free and without context to get back to it's pure function..Getting listeners to zone into the powerful qualities of sound.
Check the album out and make sure you get down to YongFU lu the next time this event is held! Getting naked or not is entirely up to you!