Over the past few years, Troy Schafer (Rain Drinkers) has been making some of the most unique music around: abrasive, intricate and incredibly varied. Last year he impressed with the multi-colored vinyl of Untitled No. 1″; this year he continues the series with two cassette entries. The first of these, Untitled No. 3, was released by Cabin Floor Esoterica this past March; Untitled No. 2 is just out on Black Horizons. We’re going to review them in reverse order to honor their numerical designations.
It’s important to note that the physical packaging is important to each release. No. 2 contains a curiously alluring angled booklet with glass bird photography; No. 3 includes a tuning peg, bow hair or broken string (pot luck!) from the artist. The notion is that there is something special about these releases; their running length may short, but the more accurate word is compact: a world of ideas shoehorned into sonic alleys.
Side A of No. 2 is a single ten-minute composition that hearkens back to Side A of No. 1. The track contains field recordings, orchestral snippets, electric drones, a snatch of dialogue, a few seconds of screaming, bursts of noise, and more tonal shifts than a symphony. Occasionally the piece stops mid-stream, as if having another thought, but the flow remains even throughout. While one might recognize antecedents in artists such as Einstürzende Neubauten, this sound is wholly Schafer’s. One imagines entire days spent deciding how many sources to fit into each four or five second segment, and matching them to the next batch, like an insane solo version of Exquisite Corpse. The back story provides a perfect corollary, as the artist calls Untitled No. 2 “a cut-up, dramatized micro-history” of his relationship with Chicago’s South Loop. A bunker door makes an appearance, as does a sample of a shotgun microphone in a trombone. Desperate melodies are apparent even through the noise. The overall impression is one of controlled chaos: beauty nestled in cracks of decaying mortar.
Side B echoes many of the ideas found on Side A, but comes across as more restrained, despite the frequent bouts of bombast. Backward masking is apparent, and the softer parts are extended. More improvisational in tone, the piece implies a more reflective approach to the city streets. An ambient piece attempts to break through the current, but is consistently rebuffed by machine gun electronics and walls of drone. It all ends suddenly, mid-scale, like a life prematurely cut short.
Untitled No. 3 flips the script on No. 2; Side B is the go-to side, as Side A is dominated by high-pitched screeches, similar to the rusty gate sampled in the mix on No. 2. One has grown accustomed to variety from Schafer, and while the tonal experiment prompts early interest, this is not a track that most people would put on Repeat. The opposite is true of Side B, which is as thick as the previous track is serrated. The integration of samples is astonishing: every foghorn drone and feedback blast is balanced by a footstep, a voice, a rail car squeak. It’s a more structured composition, as becomes apparent in the repetition of bass tones, but not even the most generous listener would call it accessible. The most amusing moment arrives early, at 00:44, as a woman yells, “That sound!” A fitting match for Schafer’s music, the exclamation reminds us of why we appreciate his work in the first place. We may not be able to identify everything, but we point to places in the mix and echo the woman’s cry. In the final half minute, synthesized birds swoop through the speakers, as if happy that the aural field is once again theirs. That sound! (Richard Allen)
Each release is available by clicking on the Bandcamp link.