A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: Ceramic Hello’s Absence of a Canary (1981)

When the long-defunct Burlington label Mannequin Records pressed their original run of 1000 copies of 1981’s Absence of a Canary, it seemed unlikely that anyone could foresee the legacy of this record three decades later. Elusive minimal synth duo Ceramic Hello, consisting of Roger Humphreys and ex-Spoons keyboardist Brett Wickens, had a short and mysterious run as a band.
Ceramic HelloOriginal album artwork for Ceramic Hello’s “Absence of a Canary” (1981)

Ceramic Hello’s few releases (a single in 1980 and an LP in 1981), both released in limited quantities, and their lack of live performances are all factors that placed an exclamation mark next to the seminal minimal synth LP Absence of a Canary when discovered by electro fetishist and cratediggers, long after the band had dissolved.

The mythology of this album persists domestically and abroad after two comprehensive reissues, one by the German label Vinyl on Demand in 2006, and the other by the Toronto based Suction records in 2012. The longevity of Absence of a Canary, as Matthew Samways of Halifax based minimal wave label Electric Voice can attest to, is owed to its sound being unique to a moment of bold DIY experimentation that struck during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Ceramic Hello seized the sonic potential of newly-available equipment at the time, such as the Roland CR-78 and Korg MS-20. A borrowed TEAC 8-track brought the recording studio into the bedrooms of Wickens and Humphreys in unassuming Burlington, ON. This pastoral suburban setting and lack of resources spoke to the record’s unique minimalism. Absence of a Canary is earnestly influenced by the works of Brian Eno (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk.

Climactic NouveauxThe Climactic Nouveaux 7″ is the third release from Burlington’s Mannequin records, which operated in the early 80’s with a staff of one.

However, this simplicity is misleading. Despite the minimalist production, the eclecticism displayed on the album’s 14 tracks makes Ceramic Hello’s strange brand of jagged synth pop hard to digest upon first listen. Just as the title of the album may ominously allude, we the listeners are the canaries in the coalmine exploring novel, and often austere sonic textures, together with Wickens and Humphreys as our guides. Behind slow chugging beats, wailing synths compete with Wickens’ vocals on the opening track The Diesquad. Half of the tracks on the record are instrumental pieces, which range from overtly grotesque synthesized horns on StatiCarnival to the triumphant ebb and flow of Grey Man. Humphreys, presumably influenced by John Foxx and the newly established Mute label, seized the records’ instrumental breaks as a means to inflect the synth tunes with classical influences.

This is particularly heard in the latter half of the record, with the track Trio giving the song a disquieting timelessness that sits at odds with the claustrophobic frigidity on the track previous, Ringing in the Sane. Absence of a Canary never lulls listeners into a passive state, the promise and vulnerability of Footsteps in the fog is abruptly shattered by the next track, sustaining a sense of volatility that persists until the closing Dig that crazy beat. Ceramic Hello’s deranged bedroom synth pop delivers visions of a dystopic future from the confines of suburban Ontario. The synesthetic characteristic of the music is no surprise considering Wickens’ parallel design career, going on to work on LP covers of more commercially successful peers including Joy Division, Peter Gabriel, New Order, and Ultravox.
OMD architectureWickens would go on to design various album covers for Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark including their 1981 LP “Architecture and Morality”

It’s doubtful that Humphreys and Wickens knew that with their original 1000 copy run of Absence of a Canary they would be contributing to a long-term movement for public attention and acclaim 30 years later. I am delighted that Absence of a Canary has been uncovered and hope it will continue to merit the attention it deserves as a pioneering Canadian minimal synth record.

The 9th song off the album, “Footsteps in the Fog”

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Album Review: Nick Kuepfer and Tamara Filyavich – Sonic Carvings with Self Healing Clay/Return Fire Co-Release

Return FireArtistic collaboration is an important way of increasing an individual’s impact by exposing the contrast in each artist’s point of view. The right blend of surroundings is vital to an individual sound’s significance and the juxtaposition of sounds that stretch into opposite directions shines more light on the qualities that make each one beautiful.  By featuring two entirely different sound artists on the same tape, The Howl Arts Collective has accomplished both a respect for artistic individuality and a display of thought-provoking contrast on their Sonic Carvings with Self Healing Clay/Return Fire Co-Release from Nick Kuepfer and Tamara Filyavich. Kuepfer’s montage of texturally satisfying samples is met by Filyavich’s taste for sound development and elongation. The idea of displaying each of these approaches in a no-correct-answer setting allows for a captivating conversation between the two. Continue reading

CKUT TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE CHARTS::: February 9, 2016

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Hi friends,
I was in Ottawa over the weekend and made it back to Montreal just in time to catch a really nice double tape release from local stars Alcrete and Welter & Associates. Both are excellent and come highly recommended by these CKUT music department ears. How about you? What are you listening to these days?

xo
joni

:::WHAT’S UP AT CKUT:::
Every Wednesday during the month of February, Ryan Alexander Diduck will be taking over as guest-host and curator of CKUT’s If You Got Ears. Diduck is a Montréal-based writer, producer and doctor of philosophy who’s got four solid weeks of exciting radio up his sleeve, with each show focusing on a different theme. On the February 10th episode, our host dedicates the episode to the music, memory and legacy of David Bowie. One month after the Starman’s passing, Diduck will go beyond the hits to discover some of his more obscure tracks as well as music that influenced him and that he in turn influenced. Plus, don’t miss an exclusive interview with British music writer and co-founder of The Quietus, Luke Turner.  Stream this very special David Bowie edition of If You Got Ears on February 10th from 12-2pm EST at ckut.ca.

:::CHARTS:::
ckut top 30 – february 9, 2016
1. moss lime – zoo du québec – telephone explosion CC *
2. linsey wellman – manifesto – self-released CC
3. v/a – fixture records 4 – fixture records CC *
4. no negative – the good never comes – psychic handshake CC *
5. tamara filyavich & nick kuepfer – sonic carvings with self healing clay/return fire – howl! arts collective CC * Continue reading

Ryan Alexander Diduck Hosts February’s IF YOU GOT EARS

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Throughout the month of February, Ryan Alexander Diduck will be taking over as guest-host and curator of CKUT’s If You Got Ears. Diduck is a Montréal-based writer, producer and doctor of philosophy. And he has programmed four solid weeks of exciting radio for us, each show centered on a different theme. There will be exclusive in-studio performances, fascinating interviews, and some very special world premieres. Catch Diduck’s residency every Wednesday from noon-2 on CKUT 90.3, and online at CKUT.ca.

For the first episode of his If You Got Ears residency, Diduck dedicates the show to some of Montreal’s most interesting, important and beloved artists. Tune in to hear hot new music from Le Révélateur, and an exclusive in-studio performance by composer Kara-Lis Coverdale. Diduck will also air some classics that define the city’s soundscape, and unearth a few surprises that delve beneath the surface of Montreal’s musical scenes. Don’t miss this special Montreal edition of If You Got Ears, Wednesday February 3rd from 12-2pm on CKUT 90.3 and online at CKUT.ca.

Concert Review – Linsey Wellman

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The Ultimate musical challenge.  A man equipped with a saxophone and complete tonal, metric, and dynamic freedom faces off against an audience eager for entertainment.  In these situations, only the devices of music in their most basic terms are of use as any attempt at complex tonal forms or chordal progressions would be futile.  With only the notions of contrasting sound and motivic development in mind, Linsey Wellman accomplished an intrigue throughout his two 40 minute sets indicative of his immense musical prowess.  Wellman seamlessly ventured from grabbing intimacy through droning rhythm and on to violent intensity never failing to surprise the crowd at every turn.

The night began slowly.  In the quietest moments, the power of intimate simplicity drew the audience forward leaving them unaware of what noise would be next to break the silence.  With Wellman’s vast array of extended techniques in full force, every spaced-out, quite moment would only be contained in the realm of unpredictability.  There were special moments where Wellman breathed into his saxophone and the whole process of the technical setup, pressing of the key, and beginning of the vibration could be heard truly encompassing the audience in the whole musical experience.  He even used the audibility of his keys to his advantage sometimes creating some sort of meter with the clicking sounds.  Authenticity is an overused word in music in this day and age, however, there is some validity to the point that a setting that provides for complete artistic control and an emphasis on in-the-moment collective experience results in a more advanced artistic endeavor.

As the music progressed along, the emphasis on intimacy was swapped out for high intensity musical shapes.  Wellman’s use of an oscillating ostinato evoked a circular melodic shape, which was made more interesting by the variations brought forward by the ever-present extended techniques.  The linear musical pattern was accomplished through the use of fast dissension and ascension through the entire range of the instrument.  Sometimes Wellman would employ an extremely angular melody encompassing somewhat random pitches of highly varying frequency resulting in a scattered sound schematic.  By focusing on individual shapes, Wellman was able to develop his motives to their full potential in a very logical way.  After each idea had been fully explored, the transition provided much needed contrast through the shock of untouched territory.  Wellman’s mastery of musical architecture complimented his intimate quite moments quite well making it impossible for the audience to lose interest for the entirety of the experience.

With the start of the second set, Yves Charuest added his own personality into the musical pallet providing for a more communicative melodic texture.  The use of both a solo and duet set-up made the night even more impressive as Wellman proved not only his ability to entertain a room alone, but he also left enough room in his musical space for another voice.  This part of the show began quietly as most conversations do.  The spacey nature of the beginning resembles an introduction to a stranger.  There are hellos and an even spread of listening and talking as the two people obtain a sense of comfortability with each other.  Eventually the conversation reaches new territories and each person is given more space to express themselves.  With their respectful sense of rapport, Yves Charuest and Linsey Wellman were able to work together to achieve many different types of conversation ranging from a quick, idea-bouncing brainstorm to a more complete expression of feeling from both sides.

Music can come in many different forms but the basic ideas are always the same.  An artist needs multiple, contrasting ideas and each of these ideas must be developed as much as possible.  With the sheer power of his individuality, Linsey Wellman fully accomplished both of these tasks despite the absence of any pre-writing and he also managed to hold an advanced musical conversation with Yves Charuest. The result was a truly fantastic night at la Plante.

 

-Review by Donovan Burtan

CKUT TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE CHARTS::: February 2, 2016

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Hello Radio!

How was your week? It’s been a pretty celebratory one here in Montreal: had some belated birthday festivities on Friday, went out for another dear friend’s birthday on Sunday, and my roommate has a birthday today. I swear half of my buds are Aquarians. It’s also been a great opportuntiy to bake (and eat) a ton of cake… not that I really need any excuses for that, though.

xo
joni

:::WHAT’S UP AT CKUT:::
For the month of February, local collective Don’t Fall takes the curatorial reigns on CKUT’s The Montreal Sessions. Don’t Fall is a collective based in Montreal, releasing annual compilation tapes as an act of preservation, documenting a specific time and place in music. Their Montreal Sessions series delves into compilation culture, zooming out on musical communities to highlight greater movements outside the scope of the individual artist. The radio series will also serve as an open call to the city of Montreal for submissions to Don’t Fall Volume 3. Catch it every Tuesday in February from 3-5pm.

:::CHARTS:::
ckut top 30 – february 2, 2016
1. stefan christoff – post mortem – old bicycle records CC *
2. no negative – the good never comes – psychic handshake CC *
3. v/a – bombay disco 2 – cultures of soul
4. moss lime – zoo du québec – telephone explosion CC *
5. tortoise – the catastrophist – thrill jockey Continue reading

Album Review: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Paper Mâché Dream Balloon

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It felt wrong to be listening to Paper Mâché Dream Balloon, the latest release from Melbourne-based group King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, on a crappy winter’s day in Montreal. This sunny collection of songs provides a healthy dose of summer nostalgia, with simple melodies and gentle chord progressions that will make you want to float off down a lazy river somewhere. Continue reading

Album Review: Dr. Dog – Psychadelic Swamp

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Fifteen years in the future, Dr. Dog has cracked open the time capsule of The Psychadelic Swamp. The band’s ninth studio album is not only a concept album about a rambling and mysterious journey through a swamp, but also an official release of the OG Dr. Dog’s self-released Psychadelic Swamp from 2001, heretofore only found as bootlegged copies. The band has worked exclusively off of old material, either revamping original tracks from the first Psychadelic Swamp or taking inspiration from old tracks to form new, better ones: a glimpse of the evolution of a band in action.

Ex-member Dave O’Donnell, part of the original group when Dr. Dog formed in and around the turn of the millenium, returns to feature in the album, reprising his role as guitarist and occasional vocalist before his departure in 2004. Toby Leaman, one of the main vocalists of Dr. Dog, has admitted that the original Psychadelic Swamp was almost unlistenable; the long-term plan of the band has always been to revisit and reshape their first album, and make it more accessible to listeners. While most of the 2001 version is keyboard, the official release has the “whole studio treatment.”

As a concept album, the swamp wanderings are very well-suited to reflect the layering, variability, and telltale creativity that Dr. Dog incorporates into their music. The style reflected in this album is still at its core classic Dr. Dog, with heavy influence from 1950s-70s pop rock. However, as a personal homage to the band both old and new, the tracks bounce around from sleek garage rock (think Spoon, White Stripes) to low-fi psych rock (Of Montreal, Tame Impala).

The album eases the listener in with “Golden Lion,” an acoustic/electric guitar blend with the deep, subdued vocals of O’Donnell floating above. The chorus changes style abruptly, echoing a sound associated with the Flaming Lips. The end of the track brings a crescendo of synth, cymbal, and vocal harmonies, all resembling waves. On “Dead Record Player,” the classic Dr. Dog sound returns in force with whining electric guitars, thumping drums, rhythmic clapping, and vocal harmonies ever-present in the background. The absurdist lyrics serve as an ode to vinyl and the joy of listening to records, ending in a shouted verse: “The music is killing me/The high and low fidelities are attacking my brain/And it’s terrific/The music sounds just great/Just terrific.”

“Bring My Baby Back” and “Engineer Says” serve as brilliant musical foils to the same lyrical theme, a melancholy lament about love lost. In “Bring My Baby Back,” the self-described “emo” lyrics are disguised behind a light pop ballad, modernized with synth snippets. “Engineer Says” returns after a few tracks to the story, but this time the music is sparse, dark, and foreboding: the harmonies are sinister, the guitar snarling and rowdy, the saxophone solo rambling and urgent.

There are other peculiar gems in the sprawling album: “Badvertise” begins with retro video game audio over a dark base melody before erupting into a rollicking garage pop song. “swamp inflammation” is a weird and unexpected bit of performance art, involving spoken ramblings about a swamp to a new wave background. This funky little interlude lasts forty-two seconds before it is swept away. The album ends with “Swamp Is On,” which closes the album neatly as an homage to both the concept running through the tracks, as well as the band itself. It serves as a message to loyal followers that the OG Dr. Dog may be gone, but is certainly not forgotten.

Album released: February 5, 2016

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam

Analog dance of the Sincere and Synthetic: A brief introduction to minimal wave

When one talks about music genres today, a discussion of the merits of such categorization schemes is never too far away. The terms that used to guide you through the aisles at your local HMV and informed your consumption of music: terms like pop, rock, metal, and electronic now seem hopelessly vague and clunky. If you’ve ever been asked to describe the sound or genre of an artist to a friend, you are well aware of how insufficient this language may feel in describing something as ephemeral and affective as music.

Minimal Wave LogoLogo for Vasicka’s New York based Minimal Wave labeled devoted to re-releasing lost synth driven music from the late 70’s to early 80’s

Alternatively, you may be overwhelmed by the endless distinctions made by audiophiles in claiming nuance between genres, where the suffixes –wave or –core are endlessly attached in a bid for cultural capital. Considering the slew of short-lived micro-genres of the past decade (witchhouse, seapunk, bubblegum-bass), it is not uncommon that claims to a new genre are often met with eyes rolling and music blogs immediately speculating, “is it here to stay?” Whereas these sub-genres emerged from the forefront of cultural trends, few genres are labeled 40 years after their sound developed with the purpose of reviving the work of artists from a subculture that was never properly singled out from under the broad umbrella of new wave music.
Minimal Wave - Vasicka ImageVasicka showcasing the 2011 Hidden Tapes compilation featuring rare, unreleased minimal wave tracks from around the world ’79-’85

  Veronica Vasicka launched the Minimal Wave record label/web-based restoration project in 2005 for the purpose of re-releasing and re-mastering obscure, dark, and synth-driven music from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s. Her original website, minimalwave.org, quickly garnered a cult following amongst synth enthusiasts as a platform where obscure recordings, scanned images, translated reviews, and transcribed interviews could be archived. The term “minimal wave” entered the lexicon of synthwave enthusiasts as a sub-genre that shared characteristics with coldwave (the French appendage of post-punk from the late ‘70s) and minimal synth (early, minimally-produced synth music).

Minimal Wave - OhamaCanadian minimal synth pioneer Ohama in his home studio circa ’83

The genre of music characterized by its use of drum machines, simple pre-MIDI synth instrumentation, and “themes of sincere, rather than ironic detachment”. These attributes are packaged with a DIY punk sensibility, often recorded in homes and basement studios. The self-released and limited distribution of these tapes and cassettes is as much a defining feature of the minimal wave aesthetic as its sonic characteristics. Minimal wave places the electronic hardware and sequencers commercially available during the early ‘80s at the foreground of the recording and embraces their novel, synthetic sounds: the mechanical beats and tinny melodies that some today may dismiss as ‘80s kitsch. This overtly synthetic instrumentation combined with themes of sincerity in the lyrics and vocal performances accounts for the genre’s idiosyncratic philosophy on the relationship between man and machine. It is no surprise that the late ‘70s popularity of science fiction and the avant-garde Constructivism and Futurism movements combined to influence the minimal wave’s distinct formula of the sincere and the synthetic.

Minimal Wave - Linear MovementBelgian group Linear Movement’s album artwork for their “On the Screen’ LP

     Seminal synth duo Oppenheimer Analysis were the first to have their 1982 recordings re-mastered and re-issued into a full length LP by Vasicka’s New York-based Minimal Wave Label. Fittingly, Brighton’s Oppenheimer Analysis embodies the distinct minimal wave dynamic of man and machine. Beyond the group’s interrogation of humanity’s precarious relationship with scientific progress, it is interesting to note vocalist Andy Oppenheimer’s relation to father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Their 1982 hit song “Devils’ Dancers” proclaims “All the radon daughters / Wonder what they taught us / Making up our status / Doubts are only traitors.”

Oppenheimer Analysis’ 1982 hit song ‘The Devil’s Dancers’

Andy’s stoic delivery is not sufficient to quell the song’s palpable sense of unease over a radioactive future. The tracks’ driving, abruptly arpeggiated synth patterns and mechanical drums punctuate the song’s unmistakable sincerity over the cost of scientific progress. Far from being classically trained, Andy recalls in an interview with Panic Film the duo having been formed at a science fiction convention. This anecdote is a testament to the DIY spirit of the minimal wave subculture of the early ’80s, where the embrace of electronic hardware meant the bracketing of conventional forms of music training, production and distribution.

Minimal WaveGerman bootleg label ‘Flexi-pop’ compiled many CD’s of obscure synth-driven music through the 90s

A lack of conventional music training may, however, be an asset for the musicians crafting minimal wave. The creative fervour where impulse overshadows one’s experience or skill level was essential in minimal wave’s bold exploration of unfamiliar synthetic soundscapes. Vasicka notes “the sounds that are heard [in minimal wave records]…actually resemble the machines used to create them.” Prioritising the electronic hardware as an autonomous instrument was a great departure from the synthesizer’s incorporation into more conventional musical arrangements where the machine was used to mimic familiar sound objects. This was seen in minimal wave’s commercially successful cousin synth pop. Minimal wave, far too dark and gritty to be considered synthpop yet too sincere for its sister genres Industrial/EBM and coldwave, found itself in an elusive category, destined for an obscure existence on bootleg compilation records.
Minimal Wave - Broken English ClubBroken English Club’s 2015 LP “Suburban Hunting” is the latest release from Cititrax

  Since 2005, the Minimal Wave label has evaded all the clichés that stigmatise new sub-genres as fickle trends quickly get exacerbated by the internet hype machine. Minimal Wave also has a sister label, Cititrax, that is oriented towards newer synth-driven music, featuring artists such as Broken English Club, Further Reductions and Toronto’s Kontravoid. The legacy of Minimal Wave is embedded in the eclecticism of the Cititrax catalogue: the diverse membership acknowledges that the distinctions between techno, new wave, and industrial music are as permeable as ever.

– Danilo Bulatovic

 

Album Review: The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum

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It has been one week since The Besnard Lakes released their fifth LP, A Coliseum Complex Museum, a shorter album of only eight tracks named for a peculiar road sign spotted in Texas. Continuing their legacy of mixing prog and psych rock in their Montreal studio, this album is a reflection of the sextet’s usual sound. However, ACCM is proof of a new, more open Besnard Lakes, who have finally embraced their love for nature and the fantastical. The group’s name comes from Besnard Lake in Saskatchewan, which provides a spiritual, inspirational, and musical retreat.

The tracks reflect an emphasis on the outdoors and the occult, citing mythical creatures and phenomena (“The Bray Road Beast,” “Necronomicon”). The band explores themes reminiscent of other psych rock bands, such as Tame Impala and M83, with lush synth and keyboard backgrounds, accompanied by rocking drums and guitar riffs: “dreamy Beach House riding Led Zeppelin dynamics,” according to lead singer Jace Lasek. The vocals, provided by Lasek and his partner Olga Goreas, are purposefully androgynous, and include sweeping harmonies à la the Beach Boys.

A Coliseum Complex Museum opens with “The Bray Road Beast,” an ode to the cryptid roaming the Bray Road in rural Wisconsin. It is a true psych rock anthem, replete with hazy guitar melodies, shakers, stratospheric falsetto lyrics, and a great deal of reverb. The Plain Moon is a groovy and diverse track, with growling guitar riffs contrasted with full harmonies that alternately explodes into a lush garden of sounds and rhythms, harking back to 60’s-esque arrangements when the chorus hits. Necronomicon is arguably the “slowest” track; it is here that The Besnard Lakes have tapped on the brakes, diving into slow-wave themes, though continuing to maintain full choral effects for vocals.

The album ends with Tungsten 4: The Refugee, integrating the heavy-handed guitar with tight riffs as punctuation amidst a wavy synth background. The track is routinely hit with a dose of ripping guitar solos, setting it apart from the album’s preceding synth-based tracks. The second half of The Refugee is almost entirely guitar work, paying homage to Led Zeppelin in increasingly intense solos before fuzzing out; a rather abrupt end to a increasingly complex track.

A Coliseum Complex Museum may not hold too many new themes, but to fans of The Besnard Lakes and newcomers such as myself, the album does not disappoint. As the cover art foreshadows, the album is painted in a technicolor palette of sounds and rhythms: an organic amalgamation of organized chaos, and a wonderful experience for the listener.

Album released: January 22, 2016

-review by Juliana Van Amsterdam