Stiff beats in the dry season

I don’t delve much into Japan’s creative-music scene. It’s the distance, the language, the simple inconvenience. But I try to check in occasionally. Otomo Yoshihide was a pretty obvious touchstone. The recently departed Itaru Oki was a nice discovery (thank you, NoBusiness Records) that is still unfolding for me.

And I take random stabs sometimes. Through Squidco, I found the trio sim and their 2009 album with Otomo. Dry steady beats are the foundation of Monte Alta Estate, not necessarily rocking out so much as following a studious rock aesthetic, with squiggles of life in the background: electronic scratches; backwards speaking or singing; a turntable needle running over a blank record to produce those comforting little curls of static. It’s all brightly lit, more treble than bass. The simplicity sometimes overstays its welcome, as on the opener “5.5mm,” but it’s a good time overall.

The “magic” is all in those background sounds, built by Otomo (turntables and synths) and Sim’s laptop noise performer, Ootani Yoshio. That ongoing chatter against the staccato rhythm helps define the personalities for each track.

There’s a enjoyably stumbling feel to “Am” and “Dig” — everyone is marching in tempo but no single instrument is setting the beat. “Dig” even gets a bit frenzied toward the end. “Freska” feels fresh and alive: Sustained keyboard chords in the back alter the color as the guitar and drums — and a hint of a bass pulse — keep driving forward. It’s mechanical but it’s enjoyable.

Here’s a few seconds of cut-up babble leading into that keyboard sheen. Note the little turntable-vinyl pops deep in the mix.

“Oom” loosens the reins for a freer sound, including quietly jazzy drumming against a “solo” of samples and chopped-up keyboard work, in Burroughs-like cut-up technique A stumbling non-beat turns up the intensity near the end.

Guitarist Oshima Teruyuki was Sim’s composer. On Bandcamp, you can find another 2009 effort of his in the same vein — Signal Extraction, with the trio SNO.

Teruyuki’s more recent output includes two long-form noise pieces released on Bandcamp this year. R1 is built from brash synthesizer sounds, including airy bursts and mechanical rattling. R2, about twice as long, includes the same palette while adding ominous voices (in English) and a more gaunt silences.

non-dweller: Scrapes, scribbles, resonance

gabby fluke-mogul, Jacob Felix Heule, & Kanoko Nishi-Smithnon-dweller (Humbler, 2021)

Two sets of strings and a bass drum: The configuration could be purely percussive, but non-dweller is built more around bowing and scraping, an ongoing chatter. The first of two long-form improvisations on this album starts with a choppy, nervous bustle, like beach crabs in full sprint, and later settles into buzzing and rattling vibrations.

It’s sometimes hard to tell which instrument is making which sound. gabby fluke-mogel‘s violin often stands out easily, tending toward squeaking microtones and extra-musical sounds pulled from the strings. Kanoko Nishi-Smith bows the koto for deep-register rumbling or clicks away like a tightly wound rubber band. Jacob Felix Heule‘s bass drum isn’t about dramatic concussions; he creates resonance in high tones or deep swoops. Just as the strings can play percussively, the drum becomes something of a stringed instrument.

Almost like a drone, the sounds blend into a mesmerizing haze. Unlike a drone, this music wiggles and contorts — there is an undercurrent of activity organized into episodes, like the inner workings of a vast, multi-staged machine.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp.

For a glimpse of the processes involved, here’s a snippet of fluke-mogel and Nishi-Smith performing in 2018 at Temescal Arts Center, Oakland: