a closer listen

DISPLAY: The TED Talks of Music Labels

TED talks are typically 6-18 minutes long.  The DISPLAY label (a sub-label of Kid Smpl’s Symbols label) holds a similar love for brevity, although it may come across as the opposite.  By asking artists to submit single works, 10-15 minutes in length, they challenge composers on each side of the time spectrum.  Those accustomed to writing albums must learn how to be concise, while those accustomed to writing singles must learn how to stretch.  The quarter-hour restriction may also be seen as a liberation from traditional expectation, an opportunity to experiment with a different style.  On the fan side, those who prefer albums can purchase pairs of these tracks on cassette, one artist per side, or burn discs from the downloads.  To date that translates into 8 tracks, 4 tapes or 2 discs, half from last year, half from the current year, the latest just released.

The series kicked off last August with an industrial explosion, as Eaves announced the label with dark drums, moans and the timbres of factory-forged weaponry.  One can hear the sound of something burning in “Mauled Heretic”, along with conversation, sirens, snippets of choir and all manner of bombast.  As they say, “Go big or go home.”  Hearing this track, one wishes for the fourth option, the 12″ vinyl, to complete the set.  The track is huge, its only drawback that it ends so suddenly one wonders if it were originally part of a longer composition.  Kid Smpl‘s “Promise Emulation” is a perfect companion, a mysterious, static-filled exploration of noise and noise reduction, of beats as decoration rather than rhythm.  The synths bear an aura of sadness, the samples the hint of something trying to break through: a rescue signal, a final phone call, a walkie-talkie after the apocalypse.  There’s some heavy breathing involved, more as effort than interaction, and a momentary withdrawal into ambience before the danger comes knocking again.  Someone is flipping through the dial: there’s nothing on, only echoes of squandered existence.

Just when we think we have a handle on the label, they flip the script.  MICHAELBRAILEY‘s “Intimacy Negator (Feel Me) continues to rustle with darkness, but of a different shade.  Here we have field recordings and voiceovers, along with a fragmented vocal reminiscent of The Who’s “See Me, Feel Me”: sweet and strange, covered with traffic and birds, electronics and strings, struggling to break into its own sonic space.  “I am light traveling”, sings Brailey, before he is overwhelmed by other elements once again: circuits and seas and the breadth of the world.  Then WWWINGS swoops in, declaring, “If There Is No You, Then There Is No Me”, seeding clouds with sorrow.  Only pieces of words break through, a continuing theme for the label.  In this piece, the technique seems to represent the way everything falls apart when relationships end.  Crunchy beats descend, along with deep bass and elongated tones offset by cut-off utterances.  The trio, from three post-Soviet nations, have survived the heartbreak and are living on scraps of hope, fueled by anger.  When the choir begins to sing, it seems the worst has passed.  It hasn’t.

Now we turn the corner of a new year.  Know V.A. emits tones of “Reification”, taking up where WWWINGS left off, as if playing a game of Exquisite Corpse.  Machine gun percussion nestles against soft female vox, giving way to brief melodies, like glimpses of sun between hurricane clouds.  As the track progresses, the two sides continue to wrestle.  And as trance elements begin to steal the spotlight from the industrial timbres, it seems as if the light might win.  Even if the sun never entirely breaks through, it does make a statement: I’m still here.  fknsyd follows this thread on “Loving Observer”, quietly at first, singing the world back together.  There’s a kindness in the track, which again uses chopped voice, now clearly a label staple.  The word “shelter” shimmers through the ether.  The beats start and stop, alternating with ambient passages, like an awakening heart.  In the final three minutes, for the first time on the label, joy pokes through.  There’s no way that DISPLAY could have known its artists would tell a story in linear order, but Eurydice is ascending.  Only two chapters remain: how will it end?

Oh no, here comes the rain again, the windshield wipers clapping out an uneven beat.  Sangam has shaken off the industrial hammering, the trancelike euphoria, the pop-tinged hues, but in doing so, he’s also shaken off the sun.  “Scripted Culture” is a dark ambient piece bordering on drone.  Orpheus has looked back, just when he was almost there.  Sad choirs provide an elegy for what once was, what could have been, what almost was again.  Conversations are drowned in precipitation like happy memories subsumed by regret.  It’s all so beautiful, so bittersweet.  w. baer does little to cheer us, writing that “don’t make me close one more door” is “about loss and the way life/time continues whether youre ready to move on or not”.  He toys with loops, as if trying to recreate a remembered past, stitching together photographs and tears; but his framework is beauty, his warm beats evidence of the distance traveled from Eaves.  It’s as if the memory has been muted by melody, the painful edges sloughed.  But can’t we linger a bit longer in this sadness?  The birds sing otherwise, the chanteuse joining in, caged or not.  Life continues to bloom even as the world seems to die.  The dystopian future of Kid Simpl is still but one possibility.

Will we learn to be grateful for the joys we’ve experienced, even though they will never return in the same way?  Or will we be crushed by rumination, playing old tapes over and over, even as new tapes are being made?  DISPLAY gives us both options; even without lyrics, their songs provide us with lessons, like the finest of TED Talks: be sorrowful.  be angry.  be joyful.  but live.  (Richard Allen)

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