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Eric Wallack reviews releases from Szum Music..

Automatic Music:

Automatic Music is a North Carolina-based improvisational music ensemble with a core membership of five people: Fred "Gentlemaniac" Hall, Ed "East October" Shepherd, Scotty "Clang Quartet" Irving, Jeff "Tragic Bunny" Mills, and Bret "IntrumenTales" Hart.  Add to that collective a rather long list of skilled collaborators including Gurney Brown and Kevin Killinger, among others.  Here are five current releases:

Carnival of Light - Circuit 5 " 2001

The third in a series of four discs conceptually based on the changing  seasons (each of the discs' beautifully conceived covers depict the same stand of trees during each of the different seasons) - this one's apparently summer (collectors note: there are special editions of this release - one with a Japanese cover and the other a two cd set).   The first ten seconds of "The Past Lives Awake" are startling and reveal things to come - electronic pulses, odd glisses careening over four octaves, and a cache of unique sounds and odd sonic textures (even controlled amplifier hum).  This music is orchestral in scope, at times cinematic and
always engaging.  "Today" begins as a sort of abstract blues, but the level of improvisational interplay is uncanny and no gesture seems to go unnoticed by anyone.  Those who appreciate high-level musical telepathy will be greatly rewarded after repeated listenings.  "Our Heavenly Bodies" begins as a flat out rocker, complete with a humorous, mechanical rock beat and distorto guitar; however, things disintegrate (for the better) as "evil" laughing, synth gurgles, percussives and unlikely overdubs erode
the basic rock structure.  Other tracks like "Do The Math" and "Until Next Time" juxtapose dissimilar instruments, textures and sounds to great aural effect.  As abstract as these guys get, there's always a sense of logic and purpose - never the feeling that they're just noodling.  In fact, much of this disc sounds composed even though it is entirely (and skillfully) improvised.

The Return of King Harvest - Circuit 7 " 2002

The fourth (and final) recording in the Automatic Music "seasons" series - this one's autumn.  The disc opens with "Inside the Beehive" and indeed; the listener is treated to the aural equivalent.  Intense guitars swarm and sting over one of the most intense drum workouts this side of mid-70's Bill Bruford-era King Crimson.  The 14-minute "Consequently No Barriers"
begins with an angular, Ashbory wah-bass figure punctuated by
volume-swelled guitar, reedy synth and paranoid tuned ercussion.  Other standouts are "Hello Mr. Rope." and "Troop Movements"  (both sort of avant-garde surf instrumentals), the heavy and stalking "Antediluvian Descent, Landing & Plateau" with its Beefheartian boogaloo; and finally, the ambient-but-brief "Ash Ray Tart".  Comparisons of this to other Automatic Music recordings are futile - each release is unique and successfully explores fresh improvisational territories and moods.  Bravo!

Music From Eden, NC - EP 1 " 2002

An all-acoustic, improvised instrumental outing (lovingly recorded live, outdoors on Bret Hart's patio - the same also pictured on the cover!), this 5-track mini-cdr release has much to offer fans of improvised, groove-oriented, eclectic acoustic music.  "Waking Up", like much of Music From Eden, NC, is organized mostly around percussives - homemade and found objects quickly gelling into a sort of tribal groove alongside environmental sounds (voices, nature, etc.), e-bowed dobro and eventually a banjo being tuned up.   "Six Miles Down the Road" fades up
mid-groove.  Not unlike Uncle Meat - era Zappa with its tuned percussion (jars & bottles?) and abbreviated drum kit (played with brushes) percolating underneath rollicking dobro and distant flute.  The vibe is both rural America and Middle East.  "Get Along Little Dogma".  Another East-meets-Appalachia excursion dominated by a cooking percussion groove, rhythmic dobro and fingerpicked banjo.  A wiry snake charmer melody emerges then the ensemble returns to the business of inducing the trance before the piece finally switches gears to conclude with a swampy boogie.  "Smoke Signals" also fades in from a previously
established rhythmic improvisation.  This one's a bit more abstract and at 1:00, it's only a tantalizing snippet.  "All Strawberry Like" is a sort of  "delta raga" with droning, bluesy dobro and shifting percussion simultaneously evoking Bombay and Baton Rouge.  Overall, Music From Eden, NC successfully blends Eastern rhythmic and melodic elements with rootsy
Americana.  The fun & relaxed, down-home vibe and exceptional improvisational interplay (not to mention the crystal-clear recording quality) make this a highly enjoyable disc that demands to be played again and again.

Notice Anything Strange? - Free 1 " 2002

Thematically close to classic, 60's acid and garage rock, Notice Anything Strange? (again, GREAT cover art - a visual joke) is probably the most truly psychedelic of all the Automatic Music releases reviewed here.  The disc is comprised mostly of grungy, medium-tempo rockers replete with bluesy, fuzztone guitars.  The (only) heavily reverbed vocal of "Fear the Panda" ("I wanna RIDE on you!") definitely adds to the shaggy vibe and fun.  "Deep Wound, Deep Brood", with its bayou-approved amp tremolo and greasy slide guitar exudes sultry, sweaty sex.  Two live cuts, "Wherehouse" and (especially) "Undercover Darkness", are intense group improvisations where the rapport is strong and the music seems to come
from a single, multi-limbed (and brained) organism.  The disc's closer, "Until Next Time", and its whooping synth and on-the-brink-of-feedback fuzz guitar foreshadows (appropriately) some of what's to come in the
sprawling Szumagumma (see review, next).

Szumagumma - STCX 1 " 2002

The cover (and title) of the three disc Szumagumma should strike a nostalgic chord with any self-respecting prog or space rockers - it's a near perfect send-up of Pink Floyd's classic, Unnagumma.  The similarities are more than skin deep; while this is not a literal recreation of the Floyd original, it is a conceptual twin - three discs, one featuring full band improvisations, the second presenting each of the band members in various other projects, and the third being band members' solo projects.  Disc one, recorded in one afternoon, is a collection of group improvisations ranging from the folksy-psychedelic "Several Stimuli (Usually 4)" to the metallic bombast of "Wrong Senders" (the companion
to the propulsive "Right Senders"). Other highlights include the
(appropriately) Floydian "Anomalous Cognition" and the freaky,
wonderfully spacey "Senders and Receivers".  Some of these pieces sound as if they were originally parts of the same longer improvisation and later edited into separate tunes - this actually helps give the entire disc a sense of aural coherence.

Disc two is probably the most eclectic of the three, owing to the wide variety of side projects these guys have initiated.  There are free form guitar duets, ("Raudivian Voicings 1& 2" and "Raw"), live cuts ("Castor Girl's Nocturnal Wanderings", the bizarre, march-like "Creature Continuum", and the spooky "the one in which automatic music breaks the window of opportunity with the baseball bat of non-conformity").  "Harry's Patches" comes from the Live from Eden, NC sessions (see review above) and once again revisits the "Appalachian snake charmer grooves" that make the previous disc such a winner.

Finally, disc three contains the only literal Ummagumma cover tune, Gentlemaniac's  "Grantchester Meadows" which closes the set.  Other cover songs lurking on disc three include East October's oddly industrialized and compelling "Instant Karma", Tragic Bunny's suitably rocking "Losing Touch With My Mind" (hey, remember the Spacemen III?) and East October's wheezing version of the Mongolian national anthem (really).  A swirling, psychedelic tribute to Syd Barrett  (simply titled, "Syd
Barrett) comes courtesy of Gentlemaniac and East October.  One of my favorite cuts on this disc is Bret Hart's beautiful, Zappaesque "Hornet, Bee and Wasp".  Obviously, this is a lot of music to digest at once, but certainly there is something for every adventurous listener and fan of improvised and eclectic music.  Additionally, as with all the other Szum releases, the packaging and cover art is superb - well above many homemade, independently released discs.

East October:

A regular member of the North Carolina-based free-improv ensemble Automatic Music, Ed "East October" Shepherd also releases group, dance and trance/ ambient keyboard oriented recordings on his own.  Here are two such releases:


Camera Obscura - UNEN 2r2 " 2001

Assisted my members of Automatic Music, East October's sequenced keyboards and drum machine loops take center stage.  This is no typical trance or house music mix however, there is always an aura of the strange (especially in "Return to Saturn" and "Back to Earth") in terms of effects processing and odd sonic embellishments.  Some pieces, like " Morning Song" and "After the Rain" (not the John Coltrane composition) are fairly ambient and have a definite cinematic quality.  Others, like "Landscapes" and "Honey From the Sun", suggest what the Sun Ra Arkestra may have sounded like had they entered the world of modern,
dance-oriented electronica.  Overall, the production on this disc doesn't offer the dynamic range of most contemporary dance releases (you won't get the hyper-boosted bass and sparkling highs commonly associated with this type of music), but what you will get is imaginative, and at times beautiful, electronic renderings of the cosmic groove-pulse.

Infinity. And Beyond - UNEN 3 " 2002

Again (as with Szumagumma) we have an offhand tribute to a famous (or infamous) record cover - this time the banned "butcher cover" that was to grace the Beatles' Yesterday And Today.  A super sleeve with details down to the appropriate lettering style and the portrayal of the Fab Four in their (stuffed) animal guises:  (the walrus is John, the "ram" is Paul, the octopus is Ringo, and the "holy" cow is George).  Here though, the similarity to Yesterday And Today ends.  With the exception of "p" and "Axum", this music is not as dance or techno oriented as Camera Obscura.  In fact, much of this owes more to the other Automatic Music releases than to modern electronica.  "2553" is similar in feel to some of the music found on Live in Eden, NC, and "Twilight" offers a psychedelic, fuzzy lead voice over the top of a psychotic accordion-like backing.   The accordion sound appears again in both "Happy" and "Green", lending a sort of bizarre, old-world Parisian vibe until "Green" begins to unravel into a mutant croaking and buzzing.  "Airplane 910" and ".and Eternity" both exploit pure sound in the form of long, buzzing drones that at once disturb and hypnotize.  Overall, Infinity.And Beyond ranks high among releases of electronic and experimental instrumental music for its individualism, attention to unique sonic detail, and subtle humor (aural and visual).


To purchase any Szum records release, browse the rest of the large Szum records catalog, or find out more about these artists, please visit
www.szum.com.

Eric Wallack is a multi-instrumentalist musician living in Bowling Green, Ohio.
He has collaborated with Rotcod Zzaj, Greg Segal and Don Campau among others. He also has  solo CDs available. Contact him at: