When Push Comes to Shove: Do We Tug? Or Do We Poll? (United States Midterm Elections List, 2018)

So, what is the cost of freedom? Granted, we’ve all heard the line before, perhaps by a well-meaning, though humorless, high school civics teacher. Between clouds of pulverized chalk, there was likely more than a little reverence shown towards the founding fathers: our nation was raised on more than powdered wigs and awkward English. Never mind the bust of George Washington on the teacher’s desk, freedom may be presumed an inherent right by some, yet it remains more problematic for others, both for those disenfranchised within existing democracies and for dissidents where democracy is suppressed. The act of voting connects citizens to a nation’s history, empowering individuals, renewing the collective union, reminding us, if only for a moment, that the future we vote for is a world that we share: leftie with rightie, hippie tree hugger with hedge fund millionaire.

Fewer than 40 percent of voters participated in the 2016 United States election, and the turnout for young voters was less than 20 percent. Whether or not you vote(d) (although we hope you do—it’s a privilege to barter a few scratches on paper for a voice), nothing is more harmful to humanity than the neglect of our agency. One has opinions; one commits to principles. No man is an island; no nation, either. Butterflies fluttering across the world send ripples through our consciousness, reminding us that the global is only a less conspicuous local.

Falling in the midterm of Republican President Donald Trump’s first term, the 2018 United States elections will be held (mostly) on Tuesday, November 6, 2018. For our American readers who missed their chance to vote in the 2018’s elections, rest assured, this is not a guilt trip; change can be accomplished through simple deeds any time of the year. Within the milestone of everyday life, hope lives in our relationships with one another; but our relationships demand authenticity: the challenge is to be ourselves in order to believe ourselves.

The following albums demonstrate convictions worthy of inconveniencing the status quo, connecting individuals to a deeper purpose both inside and outside of the voting booth. The list’s first half addresses politics explicitly: ranging from the agitprop punk of Zwischenwelt, conjuring screams about ecological injustices, to Ellen Kirkwood and Sirens Big Band‘s 13-piece jazz ensemble, reflecting upon the dangers of the internet along with the global refugee crisis. The political implications are more incidental, though no less subversive, in the list’s second half: ranging from the rowdy jazz-rock of the Fred Frith Trio, bound to shatter a tyrant’s china collection, to Audrey Chen‘s visceral explorations of voice, an athletic journey through primitive sound rituals.

In full disclosure, the political messages espoused by many of these artists align with liberal principles. Should one feel offset by this predominant belief system, one is encouraged to appreciate the artists through their redemptive creative spirit. Those seeking similarities might note that nearly half of the releases are available for free, and the majority of them feature field recordings or samples in direct dialogue with the real world. As time and space are limited, not every eligible release could be included. Honorable mention goes to Karl Marx’s 200th!, Karlrecords’ ambitious compilation celebrating the birthday of the 20th century’s most propitious (or pernicious) prophet (or hobgoblin) of economics.

The League of Assholes ~ Raw Meat Diet

Our apology to our vegan and hemophobic readers. America’s contentious 44th president, Donald J. Trump, stands with arms outstretched on The League of Assholes‘ latest chopping block, indifferent to the surrounding massacre. Raw Meat Diet is an old school racket with a new school agenda, believing that art best expresses the world as-is: endless flux. Released for free on Labor Day, the globe-scattered 20-piece ensemble’s latest release was assembled remotely, by way of computer.

With new additions to their lineup, the group renews their melee of third-eyed punk across a single 30-minute track: blast beat drums goad distorted guitar; chamber instruments stagger through flurries of electronics. Flugelhorn and accordion? Squealing pigs? Protest march phonography? Welcome to a theater of the absurd conceiving Wagner, Mr. Bungle, and GG Allen as bedmates, minus the latter’s fecal antics. The relentless ruckus occasionally morphs into smooth jazz or skewed folk, yet it’s the band’s unnamed members which linger: buzzing flies and snarling dogs; woodpeckers and trampolines; even an angry gorilla (?!). If it doesn’t put hair on your chest, it will certainly remove whatever hair remains.


Durán Vázquez ~ Le Espectacle de la Société du l’Espectacle

Marxist theorist Guy Debord warned about the seductions of the information age long before the internet existed: “Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.”

Durán Vázquez adopts Debord’s food shredder as a structural metaphor on Le Espectacle de la Société du l’Espectacle. With an eye (and ear) on public sites haunted by specters of consumerism, the Galician sound artist mulches field recordings into vexing soundscapes.

The first track opens with water lapping a lakeshore; but the tranquility is soon bruised by motorboats. An electronic drone provides a quiet foil for the furious recreation. Transporting us from an idle day on the lake to a street rally, shouts for help unsettle beside gunshots on the second track. Bleating car horns sound like a flock of strangled geese; elsewhere, a studio laugh track cackles eerily. The final track seethes with gurgles and gratings. Passing airplanes drown out a speech, the announcer coaxing chants from the crowd. (In an era of tribal politics, authority captivates when amplified on stage.) Life may be a festival filled with ghosts of our desires; but if the party never stops, how will we know what we celebrate versus what we mourn? Never has a garbage disposal sounded so broken.

Zwischenwelt ~ Capitalism is Killing the Planet

Capitalism is Killing the Planet is exactly the type of music that mother warned about: mind-warping, limb-thrashing NOISE; in other words, the bad seed skipping class for a socialist club meeting. Hailing from Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city and a financial center for the world, the artist known as Zwischenwelt doesn’t beat around the bush of his discontent: rather, beats the bush with repeated distorted decibels.

“The Ecological Rift” lumbers with cold hands through a dim dystopia: drum machines clank beside corroded loops while Zwischenwelt screams the planet’s woes. The album’s flailing centerpiece, “Florence,” begins with lacerations torn from damaged electronics before beating its head, unapologetically, against a wall of white noise for 20 minutes. After accepting the fate of the fire pit, “Capitalocene” closes the musical tract with a loopy lullaby on synth; the backdrop provides a pensive foil for sampled commentary addressing the world’s material problems: climate change, deforestation, privatization of water, etc.

Despite its allegations, the sonic mayhem empowers. Perhaps there’s no wrong way to struggle against injustice. In an act of defiance against the system he critiques, Zwischenwelt is offering his release for free.


Klara Lewis and Simon Fisher Turner ~ Care

Care is both a title for the debut collaboration by Klara Lewis and Simon Fisher Turner and a suggested remedy for the state of world affairs. The electronic duo’s careful craftsmanship blends low and high culture, the meek with the aggressive.

Switching between pummeling and fluttering, “8”‘s dense power electronics smother chirping birds. Its transitions startle, mincing micro beats and angelic choir vocals, then drifting into drones. “Drone” prowls deep into an inky night. Beyond medieval chants, ambient swirls engulf a lone street performer. And “Tank” opens with children playing; a sudden gunshot creates a void trailing a John Carpenter-esque keyboard melody. Sounds of worship can be heard further down the street. “Mend” ends the album warmly, tracing an Oriental scale on liquid synths, leaving one swaying in revelry.

Reflecting upon global cultural differences, Care resembles a contested radio during a road trip: grandfather reaches for the world station; father prefers western classical; the son longs for the dance floor; and the daughter leans out a window for reprieve, listening to songs of praise from a mosque, cringing at a brawl on a street corner. Though peace may be far from inevitable, it remains wholly attainable for those who care.


Ellen Kirkwood and Sirens Big Band ~ [A]part

Ellen Kirkwood and Sirens Big Band offers a new side to easy listening—if only the housebroken genre were unafraid to break stride or break a sweat. Reaching beyond commercial pleasure[A]part dazzles with glass-cutting harmonies, rhythms which dance across cultural borders, and structural innovations which should tantalize academics. The four-part suite thematically reflects upon socio-political hot topics.

Mirroring the internet’s sway on our psyches, “[A]part 1” builds from a grainy hissing, twirling like Phillip Glass through flower fields, then spirals downward. “[A]part 2” imagines life as an emigrant; fleeing fear and oppression, the feathery vocals float uncertainly, held aloft by gentle orchestration—until a piano solo shatters any peace of mind. Is it heating up in here? “[A]part 3” warns of global warming through woozy tuba and bacchanalian circus instruments. Meditating upon how best to live amid the squabbling, “[A]part 4” purrs with double bass and airy flutes; easing away from despair, the track peaks into a blazing salsa melody. (Pass the guacamole.)

[A]part moves with a big sound and a bigger heart; this is instrumental music which speaks louder than pundits’ words and clearer than our present troubles; this is an ensemble with a promise, grounding us, as Kirkwood suggests, in compassionate faith: “It’s easy to get complacent when the world’s problems seem too big, but I hope that my music can encourage people to keep feeling and striving.”


Fred Frith Trio ~ Closer to the Ground 

Fred Frith Trio is the type of lover who leaves one breathless and then pants-less, scrambling for car keys. Led by tireless guitarist and composer Fred Frith, a man who has appeared on more than 400 albums throughout his four-decade career (having collaborated with everyone from Mike Patton to Brian Eno), Closer to the Ground is structured with an air of spontaneity; its nine tracks bristle with irreverence, preferring textures plucked from buckets of nails, rhythms which buck but never buckle, time signatures tallying dizzying beats.

The drums count polyrhythms on “Bones To Pick With Graveyards,” get funky on “Betting on the World.” The bass cycles from dubby lounge jazz on “Ruhebereich” to plate tectonics on “In the Grip of It.” And Frith plays a fire imp: shrugs off more riffs in a single track than a garage band’s entire practice session on “A Path Made By Walking”; illuminates key changes on “Love and Other Embers”; dissipates into the night sky on “Stars Like Trees.”

The lines between instruments are twisted into airtight knots throughout Closer to the Ground. Like life, there are interruptions but no intermission. Born from, while ultimately transcending, control, the Fred Frith Trio suggest that mindfulness is more than a trending hash-tag. People would like to let go, give their lives up to prevailing forces. But before realizing restraint, one must first command discipline. Only then can one grasp one’s purpose. Only then can one let go—without abandon.


Audrey Chen ~ Runt Vigor

Audrey Chen wouldn’t consider her work to be politically motivated. Yet there’s something radical about how far Runt Vigor advances her peculiar music language. Refusing to lay still or to play fetch, her improvisations confound with their sheer physicality: wordless vocals ululate arcane shapes, vibrate beside cello and synthesizer. Although Chen has a classical conservatory background, having performed oratorio throughout her adolescence, the immediacy of her sonic rituals cannot be conceived by a written score.

“Heavy” writhes with Chen’s pliable vocals: gasps, gurgles, slurps, and chirps. “In The” adds sweltering synth to her signature growls. The subterranean “Mouth” blurs bowed strings and half-articulated vocalisms. 20-minute closer “Heavy In The Hand” burns uneasily, crackling and flaring in each passing breeze.

Tasking music with more than entertainment, Runt Vigor showcases Chen’s discipline of sound making as life-affirming medicine. Defying ideologies, one can’t help thinking that if every citizen were as awakened to the crossing of art and life, alive to their latent creativity, then the world would benefit from such courage.


Hanno Leichtmann ~ Nouvelle Aventure

Some expressions of dissent intrigue. Others explode. Granted access to the sound archive at Darmstadt International Summer Courses, a school known for its pioneering role in 20th-century classical music, electronic musician Hanno Leichtmann creates a subtle storm with Nouvelle Aventure. As an homage to Darmstadt serialist composers, Nouvelle Aventure‘s meta-narrative on sound synthesis applies parameters—such as speed, amplitude, playback direction—to the 79-year library of lectures and concert recordings.

Cutting samples into new shapes, “Kristallische Bindung” lurches in spasms between plucked violin and door slams. Soaring vocals loop into a jolting note on “Spelbstbespiegelung,” trailing percussive clatterings. Elsewhere, washing machines tumble with operatic vocals; atonal keyboards perforate lecture samples; tipsy tuba showers in squishy FX. There is a method in the madness. And the madness is a message. John Cage, a composer who made chance-determined music, articulates the album’s thesis on “Oberlippentarf”: “When we separate music and life what we get is art.”

As a revisioning of history, Leichtmann focuses less on sound events themselves than on their configuration. Elevating curation to dramaturgy, Nouvelle Adventure replaces personal therapy with social commentary. In light of pervasive curatorial methods of our time—iTunes playlists, self-selected news sources, and social media algorithms—it is a practice we enact daily. And it is a practice enacted upon us, with or without our consideration.


Jasmine Guffond ~ Degradation Loops

Jasmine Guffond is a current Ph.D. candidate interrogating issues of identity through sound art. Degradation Loops was created for an exhibit in which visual artists destructed and then re-assembled their own work. Thematically, Guffond’s contribution to the exhibit confronts the fear of decay as both a mortal and a consumer. In an era of high definition consumer technology, any deviation from the signal, the idealized message, is deemed irrelevant, or, worse, threatening. Instead of warding off the inevitable, Degradation Loops plays with destruction as a positive creative force.

Guffond began by sampling one of her earlier albums (Yellow Bell). After establishing an underlying structure—from gallery conversations, stabs of amplifier feedback, and whorls of electronic treatments—she bit crushed her creation. The half-hour recording gradually (de)evolves; each looped iteration slowly drifts from intention to expression, emerging from disappearance into perseverance.

Far from embracing anarchy, with its smirking why-bother attitude, Degradation Loops reminds us of sound’s resilience. Regardless of politics, the sounds that survive are the sounds that resist. Even if the message is obscured, hope remains.


H y p e r m a r k e t ~ Platinum Card

H y p e r m a r k e t‘s Platinum Card fits squarely—or, in case of plastic payment cards, rectangularly—within the vaporwave school. The electronic music microgenre samples music broadcast in public spaces, often markets (especially shopping malls), which are then chopped, looped, and processed into celestial rug burners—that is if one were tranquilized underwater. The ironic subgenre subverts easy listening material dismissed in our periphery, such as lounge and elevator music. Part satire, part midnight nocturne, Platinum Card redeems First World consumerism through lugubrious grooves. Grounded by pattering drum machines, its 20 tracks duet between public sites (with their uncast shopper passersby) and their unseen musical director.

Keyboards from the 1980s twinkle beside reverb-soaked flute (“Crystal Peak”), slinky piano ricochets down marble hallways (“Information Kiosk”), blurred tenor vocals seep between kiosks (“Movie Theater”), steamy sax gushes (“24 Hour Photo”); all around, absorbed consumers stroll (“ATM Points”), clutching their heaping bags (“Restrooms”), hurrying to their next errand (“Exit”). The escalator moves in place: completes its silent circuit. Life goes on, and on. For now.

(Todd B. Gruel)

*The cover photo was taken by Cornelis Johan Hofker (1886-1936). And the rest of the voting photos are used courtesy of Element5 Digital from Pexels.

About Todd B. Gruel

A bearded biped who still believes in 35mm film, 6-string guitars, and jet black cats.

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