SCIENCE FICTION MUSIC REVIEW: “Black Stabbath Volume 1” (2009)

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One of the cooler aspects of this job is that occasionally people send stuff across my desk that I’d never have heard of, let alone seen in a million years if I was acting on my own. Some of this stuff is super-neat, some of it is just drek, and some of it defies easy categorization. “Black Stabbath, Volume 1” would be an example of this. The product of one man, and not so much music as it is an attempt to just generate interesting, deliberately-non-musical noise, it’s actually a lot of fun. “Why would anyone want to just make noise,” you ask? Well, why not? As the artist himself states,

>>>I understand that most people have no direct experience with out-and-out noise, at least presented in a context usually reserved for traditional musical performance. That’s because most people, if not happy or well-adjusted, are too busy with rewarding careers and hobbies, perhaps spending time with friends and family, to notice this crap even exists. And even if they’re unlucky enough to run across it, they don’t pursue it or anything — no, the reasonable response to encountering noise is to shrug and go off and spend your free time doing things that are relaxing and pleasant.

But an audience for noise does exist, as well as what might be a surprising number of prolific performers and artists who make the stuff. People go to noise concerts, buy noise CDs and records. Nobody in their right mind ever need be able to make these distinctions, but noise actually varies pretty widely in texture, dynamics, volume and overall presentation. Much like with veganism, aficionados chiefly value it for the opportunity it gives to one-up fellow nerds with useless, arcane knowledge and the dedicated pursuit of unpleasantness. Frequently, though, noise enthusiasts pretend otherwise, making up a bunch of theoretical arty hoo-hah to smokescreen the fact their devotion is more a symptom of emotional problems than reflective of a refined aesthetic sensibility or highly developed intellectual capacity.

I have to admit, though, that I personally love me some noise. When I was a kid, I’d hold up my heavy, black Panasonic cassette tape player to the tinny speaker of my small black-and-white TV during Godzilla movies and record the sounds of destruction and mayhem. I’d lie on my bed for hours, eyes glazed over in happiness, playing back the tapes and listening to the explosions and shrieks and roars. As an adult, the occasional noise concert serves as an amusing novelty, and, in private, some of that stuff can be useful to effect a kind of instant satori, deployed to override the mental circuits and scour the forebrain of thought-based clutter — a refreshing, controlled way to blast that pesky ego for a few minutes without the need for all that terrible Buddhism.<<<

And you know what? Even if I’m not sure if he’s talking about a legitimate underground scene, or if he’s just making crap up to make life seem more interesting than it generally is, *I* Totally Get It. I totally understand what he’s going for, and it makes a certain kind of sense. We’ve all been there, overloaded by life, bordering on psychic ennui, and then we unwisely turn on the radio and find ourselves pushed past the brink by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (A band I hear more of now than I ever did when their one hit was ostensibly popular. I hate nostalgia. Nostalgia is a lie. Nostalgia is a club to bludgeon you with. Nostalgia is another article in the future.), and you just kind of snap and need anything to break you out of the cycle of rumination and overload. In psychological terms, this is co-regulation, but in more workaday terminology it’s called distraction. It’s a palate-cleanser, something to deliberately make your brain jump the tracks. It definitely ain’t music, but it’s the ipecac you go for when too much music, too much contrivance, too much twaddle has made you sick.

Here we go, track by track:

1 The Men Who Stare At Goats (0:51)
Some mumbled, heavily distorted words and an interesting glass harmonium sounding kind of piece that never quite develops a harmony, but plays through the same cycles over and over, with some backmasked instrumental flashes here and there

2 It's Alright, He Just Wanted His Machete Back (1:11)
Sounds like background sound effects for a mid-60s Italian science fiction movie. Could easily be inside a big alien asteroid heading for earth that turns out to be secretly alive, or maybe the inside of a huge spooky alien machine with random semi-organic gurgling and noises that might be moans or possibly cattle in the background. It’s nicely spooky

3 The Haunted Wood And Desolate Mountain Are Their Shrines (4:41)
We get a harsh mechanical kind of chord that sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear when your early-90s Sierra Online game would hang up and be stuck playing the same not-quite-notes endlessly until you rebooted. We get some slow, distorted lyrics from some spooky old movie, made spookier by how slowly they’re played back:“Do you believe in ghosts? You don’t? Well, now, you must admit that there are things that frighten us. You can’t deny that there are signs from the dead.” What sounds like the first note from the Outer Limits naration comes in, with some deep chimes, some random bells, and an off-center circadian kind of loop that gets out of synch with itself as it phases in to some of the other loops. It’s kind of fascinating, and more textured than the previous two tracks, and more oppressive not-quite-chords come in toward the middle, while some of the earlier stuff fades out. I’m not sure that any of my descriptions are what the artist was hoping to bring out, but the interesting thing about this is that I think any two people listening to it would come out with different impressions of the same sprawling sonic mass, which is kind of what I like about the project. The chimes continue, but we get two interesting fade-outs where it sounds like the track is starting to gear down, but as it does finally fade down in the last thirty seconds or so, we can hear some really interesting off-beat percussion. It’s reminiscent of some of Raymond Scott’s experimental tracks from the mid-sixties.

4 Calling Monster Island (1:19)
We get a sample from an old Godzilla flick, “All of the earth’s monsters have been collected, and are living together in a place called Monsterland,” and then a slow, yet strangely funky four (Sometimes five) note bassline that changes tempo randomly while another sample, “Calling monster island” kicks in now and again. It’s kinda’ great, really.

5 Scar Of The Harlocks (2:44)
Presumably inspired in some part by “Captain Harlock,” we get a very crumbly chord that doesn’t really change, but it distorts as though through a busted speaker. We get random rumblings and low, mechanical screeches as though from yet another Italian SF movie.

6 Monstrously Perched Atop A Mountain Of Bones (1:50)
The low, semi-organic rumble comes back - by this point, it’s a motif on the album - with some spooky up-bending ‘whooping’ noises, and a counterpoint downward rumble. There’s also some random splashes of sound in a one-two-three pattern running over the top of it with a very unusual angle of attack. This one is basically perfect for a haunted house, if you’re having one at the rec center

7 Radiation Sickness (2:58)
We begin with highly distorted warning sirens and a high frequency signal that increases and decreases in volume, with some backwards bits of the siren flaring over the top of it. It fades out around 47 seconds, then fades back in again more aggressively, and possibly somewhat backwards. The siren gradually melts in to the background while the high frequency stuff takes over until about a minute and a half, then it’s back to something like the original balance. There’s a breif, probably accidental five note phrase that loops over and over here, sounding (to me) like “A, E, I, Oooooo, U”, but not verbal. This one is a bit too bracing, I don’t really care for it.

8 Somnambulent (1:44)
Clanking mechanical noises atop moans, the gurgling semi-organic noises, and some spooky accidental harmonies. The mechanical noises are interesting because they’re a broken loop - they go rhymic for a bit, then drop out of time, or miss a few, then kick back in. Sounds a bit like a shovel scraping the pavement, looped very close together. The rumbling/breathing noises are a bit more gurgely here. Abrupt ending.

9 There Are Strange Objects In The Abyss, And The Seeker Of Dreams Must Take Care Not To Stir Up The Wrong Ones (6:30)
Again, we start out with a low, grinding chord, with some much slower, periodic shoveling noises, and stuff that sounds like backmasked vocals around a minute. This resolves itself in to a sample of someone saying “Atomic creatures” over and over again, but not fast like a dance track. The sample fully resolves itself before it starts up again. Then the vocal effect changes, and becomes unrecognizable, no longer resolving but becoming a defacto heavy echo like I used to get when I played with my reverb in high school. This abruptly clears around 2:30, and “Atomic Creatures” starts again by itself, then we get heavy grinding electronic noises soaring up as the vocal fades down and disappears. By 3:30 it’s just noise, but then a mechanical/vocal heartbeat noise comes in, sounding like something out of “Fantastic Voyage,” then resolves itself in to “Atomic Creatures,” which I suddenly realize I’ve been hearing wrong - it’s actually a loop of someone saying “I saw these creatures…” over and over. At 4:23 all the noise disappears, and we get just the vocal, but then heavier, staticky versions of the vocal start interfering with it, which is borderline unpleasant, until the pumping comes back in and dives it some shape. Then it’s static overload around 5:30 and a wind effect comes in shortly after that as the wall of static melts away, and the not-quite-wind carries us out. Oddly, it reminds me a bit of “Bastard Universe” by the Church, despite not sounding anything like it at all.

10 Robokill Beneath Disco Club Laila (2:29)
Random PA-style lady vocals with what sounds like a looped, mutated train and random electronic noodle-noises throughout. Listen to it for a minute or so, and it begins to sound almost like a march, and the unintelligible woman in the background begins to sound like that “Attention! Your attention please!” announcer woman from 1984 (1985). Reminds me of a short bonus track from an Art of Noise EP played too slow for kicks (Which I’ve done on occasion).

11 And Evil The Mind That Is Held With No Head (4:01)
More unintelligible vocals, including a looped Soundbyte from a woman, a reversed siren sound, and periodic spikes of shrill noise. There’s a strong wind/storm sound raging in the background, and an interesting circadian thing going on where the static makes the storm sound more…I dunno…stormy. That said, a few of the shrill bits are a bit too shrill for me. The male babble disappears as it goes on, and the female becomes a bit more comprehensible, but overshadowed by the other sounds, like a person speaking too quietly during a storm. I could never quite make out what she was saying, but I think I like the second half of the track better than the first par.

12 Logic Collapses Into Ghosts And Shadows (9:33)
Low electronic noises, in G I think, with an increasing thump-thump pattern and some ‘whooping’ noises intermittently that could be frogs in an oppressive swamp at nighttime. The G-chord grind follows your basic sinusoidal wave pattern, and you keep expecting something else to turn up and go circadian with it, but it doesn’t. The whooping noises get more detailed and random, becoming somewhat more crystalized than random bloops, and by the three minute mark, they’re sort of the dominant foreground stuff. If it were a song - which it isn’t - you’d call it the melody, but it’s nothing so defined here. Then it scales back a bit and becomes a bit more random as the sine wave fades away and the thump-thump pattern continues. Around four minutes in, we get some heavily distorted vocals of a man talking about psychological concerns. Another man’s voice comes in, and the echo takes over, all the noises heretofore are gone. This abruptly stops at about the five minute mark, and we’re back to thump-thump with the sine wave from before, and the whoops now having transformed in to random unpredictable patterns. The most interesting part of this, actually, is that your mind attempts to build patterns around these random keystrokes - it’s human nature to try and find things that aren’t there, and this is a sort of intriguing game that the listener plays with the sounds - trying to find music in the noise. Really, I suppose this is the point of the whole exercise.

13 Baltan Seijin Uchu Ninja Reverie (3:25)
Starts off with a harsh electronic noise straight out of an SF movie that starts out in A sharp, and a woman’s voice saying “Weird” in a highly distorted fashion, then around a minute in the noise jumps to a D, but won’t stay put. It flanges out, wanders around, folds back in on itself, sometimes reaching annoying levels, sometimes more sedate. The woman continues to say random unintelligible, highly distorted words. (Is that “Nice” she’s saying? I’m not sure). It’s a bit like a fractured take on an already fractured Syd Barrett solo track where he’s just rambling off random barnyard words or something. The last word is definitely “Haunted,” however, and it makes a nice effect.

14 Solve Et Coagula (2:38)
Lots of odds and ends on this one, things turn up, disappear, conflict, disappear, it never quite finds a groove like most of the other tracks do, though it does start to seem like it’s going to shap up around the minute-and-a-half mark, this one feels a bit like a dish made from leftovers. Or I might just be suffering from sonic overload by this point.

15 I've Got A Message For You, And You're Not Going To Like It (0:41)
This one starts off almost like a dance track, with a distorted voice saying “Hello? Hello?” over and over and over, then recites the title. Actually, I really like this one, despite its goofy, kind of pointless ominousness (Or perhaps because of it). It’s also the track that’s most like music - put a dance beat behind it, and it wouldn’t be out of place in a half dozen remixes I can think of. I am a woefully conventional man in most regards. Woefully so.

16 Escape From The Raiders Of Atlantis (6:07)
“Shutdown Sequence Initiated. Shutting down..down..down…dowwwwn” is the sample at the beginning, and though I know I’ve heard it before I can’t place it. We get some chorded noises that could be either a guitar or a chain saw played through a microphone with distortion attached, and around a minute in D#A#G# melody that almost resolves itself for an instant, then turns in to an eternal chord that just gradually amps higher and higher until it peaks out and starts over again. At the two minute moment, we get something like bass rumbling in the background. Around three minutes the chord changes the pattern with which it peaks out, and becomes something entirely different, yet mutated from the initial almost-melody. Part of it splits off somewhere around G and just holds that in the background while its cousin keeps going through weird permutations. The bass disappears, and then reappears around D# then jumps down around A#, then back up again, very very slowly and randomly, so as not to give rise to any kind of actual structure.

17 Consoled By Monsters (6:20)
Easily my second-favorite title for a track on here. Crickets and horribly distorted vocals that become a kind of gurgling conversation between two friendly creatures who are chatty, but have aphasia. A little random subdued maraca-like percussion hits around a minute in. At two minutes we get more focused rhythm, and the conversation goes between a higher-voiced monster and a lower voiced one. “Hello, I’ve got a message for you and you’re not going to like it” makes a return appearance. The conversation - never intelligible - percolates down to burbling swamp noises again, and meanders a bit. Around four minutes we get what can best be described as the “Star Trek Spooky Planet Background Noise,” whether by design or accident, and the whole thing disolves in to basically a soundscape that you’d get over an establishing shot in an SF movie from the seventies. It’s not bad, but I think maybe a bit longer than it needs to be.

18 Into Crypts Of Graves (3:24)
We start off with looped noises from old Atari home videogames, Missile Command, I think. Then we get a bit of actual music, (C C# G, F# E F#, F# E F#, F# E F#) which again sounds sampled from an old movie, but I can’t quite place it. This fights with sliced, looped, mutated bits of video game sound effects, and while I think the videogame noises are a bit too far out in the foreground, I really like the hell out of this one, probably because it’s just giving me more of a framework to play off of. I also like the intermittent low rhythm that shows up now and again.

19 There's Nothing Funny About A Clown In The Moonlight (3:26)
My favorite title on the CD, we start off with a chime or gong, and then some wind noises that almost might be a chant. Random SF ‘transmission’ noises start around a half a minute in, with the sound of a Phaser on overload, and random tricorder noises. These seem like they’re going to settle down around a minute in, but don’t, and the tricorder noises become more prominent as the phaser overload keeps heading uphill. The transmission noises play over ‘em, cut out, come back, cut out. The phaser jumps back an octave, and climbs again. Then it’s all about the phaser, and a low rumbling, the other sounds long since gone. Then we get a couple paralleling each other. Then back to the rumbling and the wind.

20 A Happy Moment (0:44)
Closing out our sonic experiment, we get an actual drumbeat, Godzilla noises, and a voice saying “A happy moment” occasionally, while another sine wave wanders about. This reaches a crescendo of sorts, and we’re abruptly done.

The fact of the matter is that I like it. It’s not the kind of thing I’d listen to over and over, but it sets out to deliberately save you from overload by overloading you, and it pretty much succeeds. It’s interesting, too, in the same way a Rorschach blot is interesting - you’re looking in to a picture that is deliberately irresolvable, so what you see in there is ultimately going to tell you more about yourself than it will the artist. Some of the shorter tracks are probably gonna’ end up on my next mix CD.

So is this Science Fiction? Well, it is and it isn’t. It isn’t in the sense that putting any label on it beyond “Noise” is obviously not something the artist wants, and it’s deliberately devoid of all but the most circumspect of connotations. That said, it samples heavily from Science Fiction movies, TV shows, and monster flicks, which puts it solidly in our purview. Also, it’s got a picture from The Road Warrior on the cover, and a mutated picture of Vampira from Plan 9 From Outer Space on the liner notes, so there!

I want to recommend this, but I’m fully aware that most of my audience won’t like it, and many will be frankly offended by it (Republibot 2.0, I’m looking at you..), so I recommend it with the very stringent caveat that this is *not* music, this is an experimental sounds cape project that is really pretty interesting, but intended for a pretty small audience of people. The odds of your average person on the street liking this are pretty small, so it’s probably best to check out the Black Stabbath page here where you can hear most of the tracks before you plunk down your money. If you're one of those people who's still sitting around listening to The Bangles, then odds are you'd run scraming from the room from this. That said, it’s bygoing beyond the edges of the known world that we learn the shape of the world, and because of that, such experimentation is always worth doing, not because it’s an end in itself, but because it shows us how much more cool crap there is out there to be discovered yet.

Hell, I liked it so much, I stuck a Black Stabbath band sticker on my guitar case!