It’s been four years since Ka Baird of Spires That in the Sunset Rise moved from Madison to New York, and while she continues to work with bandmate Taralie Peterson (who’s still in Madison), by necessity they’ve devoted more energy to solo projects lately. Tomorrow night they’re both in Chicago (where Spires came into their own in the aughts as an engagingly odd psych-folk combo) for a concert at the Owl, but they’re not actually performing together. Baird will play in the duo Body Love with percussionist Michael Zerang, who’s made a couple fascinating albums with Spires in the past few years. Peterson will perform under the name Louise Bock, which she also uses on the strong new solo album she’s celebrating at this show, Repetitives in Illocality (Feeding Tube).
Both Baird and Peterson have moved beyond the rustic, ethereal folk weirdness of Spires’ early days toward something more searching, hypnotic, and intense. On her new album Peterson crafts four pulsing, spell-casting tracks that use different combinations of instruments but end up consistently harrowing and absorbing. “Clue Woman” overdubs wordless chanting and haunting long vocal tones onto flanged lap-harp patterns that combine warped psychedelia with the spirit of classic minimalism, evoking ritual more than concert music. She builds “Incandescent Misspelled Word” atop viscous, striated cello double stops that teeter to and fro, their harmonies almost suggesting a busted accordion, and creates a disorienting, kaleidoscopic sprawl by adding layers of melodic vocals digitally diced into a jarring splatter. “Free but Theheartistwisted” blends swirling alto saxophone flurries, extended by digital delay in a way that reminds me of a Terry Riley piece, with billowing blankets of shimmering lap harp. The final track, the epic “The Leaf Cutter and the Stick Bug” (embedded below), complements its visceral slabs of bowed cello—overdubbed so that they can spew out in several directions at once in polymetric heaps—with a closing flourish of ethereal singing.
Veteran Chicago electronic artist Andy Ortmann opens Thursday’s show, celebrating the release of the sprawling three-LP set Pataphysical Electronics (Nihilist). Last year he made a collaborative album with Baird called Psychic Activation Ritual, which wedded Baird’s spacey, largely acoustic aesthetic (meditative flute and piano improvisations, vocal interjections) with Ortmann’s much harsher, noisier electronics, staking out turf somewhere between the heavens and a raging inferno. Ortmann has hardly mellowed, but he’s backed away from the outrageous and deliberately provocative approach he pursued for many years, usually under the name Panicsville—his music was often piercingly violent, complemented by antisocial stage antics that included throwing trash at the crowd, microwaving shark meat onstage to stink up the room, and assembling an ensemble that included four running motorcycles filling the venue with exhaust. He frequently performed in a ridiculous spider outfit. These days, thankfully, he seems willing to rely on his music to freak people out—and it’s certainly up to the task.
Totaling more than two hours, Pataphysical Electronics can be a bit of a slog if you’re not willing to follow everywhere it goes. Personally I’m not a fan of Ortmann’s experiments with using computer code to synthesize speech, as technically impressive as they may be, but I find lots of his other efforts compelling. Much of the album is discordant, as you’d expect from Ortmann, but very little of it beats you over the head. “Maelstrom in X Minor” has an almost Xenakis-like density of event—its richly textured mix of haphazard metallic-sounding percussion, dragged objects, and trash-heap crashes is pulled along by intermittent waves of electronic noise, and when the percussion fades you can hear tape-manipulated piano and what sounds like bass-heavy processed human humming and grunting.
I can’t even guess what’s going on in “Four Constructions With Interruptions,” a multipartite suite of blorpy electronics, low-end wheezing (which sounds a bit like an Anthony Braxton contrabass clarinet solo), speech synthesis, fiery crackle, furnacelike hum, heavy breathing, and educational recordings about schizophrenia. “Extended Hammered String Environment VI” is a lengthy excursion within the innards of a piano, with every scrape and hammer amplified to ominous horror-soundtrack proportions, while “The Gong Song” electronically manipulates the deep overtones of a gong for ten minutes of heavy metal ringing. A couple of extended tracks use found recordings, such as the lounge-organ groove on “Subliminal Shapeshifting Scenario” or the Mexican garage-rock record on “MaMa!” (which gets played at several inappropriate speeds and layered with metallic clanging).
The album is dense, and I’m not sure that listening to it all in a single sitting—as I’ve done a couple of times—is the best way to take it in. Maybe you should start with just this relatively brief track, the smudgy, snaking “The Animal Vegetable Mineral Confessional.”
Various artists, The Music of Bob Zieff: His Arrangements and Compositions (Fresh Sound)
Leif Ove Andsnes, The Long, Long Winter Night (EMI Classics)
Eivind Buene, Asymmetrical Music (Sofa)
Mary Jane Leach, Pipe Dreams (Blume)
Various artists, Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 2 (Sublime Frequencies)