Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Filmmakers Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass Chronicle Martin Bisi’s Legendary Brooklyn Music Hotspot

When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.

Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.

In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.

The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.

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July 18, 2014 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/24/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown is supposed to continue all the way to #1. We should be caught up by the end of today; after all, when a terrible, apocalyptic hurricane strikes, there’s nothing else to do but blog, right?  Wednesday’s album was #524:

Black Fortress of Opium’s first album

Led by a charismatic multi-instrumentalist who goes by Ajda the Turkish Queen, the Boston noir rockers’ 2008 debut alternates between assaultive, noir anthems and more hypnotic but equally dark stuff. Martin Bisi’s raw yet rich production blends layer upon layer of reverb guitar in with Ajda’s mandolin, banjo, wind instruments and “field recordings,” creating an irresistible sonic tar pit. The gothic-titled House of Edward Devotion sets the stage for what’s to come with its eerie overtones, the melody only baring its fangs in the quietest moments, followed by the savage Black Rope Burns. The most stunning moment here is the seven-minute Ari (dedicated to the son Nico had with Alain Delon) with its ferocious sheets of distorted slide guitar and an earth-shattering plummet into the abyss at the end. There’s also the wistful Crack + Pool and its reprise; the Nina Nastasia-esque Twelve Gross; the jarringly percussive Your Past; the sad, sarcastic lament Model Café; the sultry, bluesy soul ballad From a Woman to a Man and the trance-inducing, ominous, nine-minute Dulcet TV. Most of this is streaming at the band’s myspace; AWOL from the sharelockers, it’s still available at cdbaby.

August 27, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small Beast, New York’s Edgiest Rock Night, Lives On

Monday night at the Delancey is still the most happening night of the week for rock music in New York. Small Beast founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch may have taken his act on the road to Dortmund, Germany for the next year, but the weekly series lives on. This must have been close to Beast #100 and it was characteristically fascinating. Black Fortress of Opium frontwoman Ajda the Turkish Queen opened. That band’s 2008 Martin Bisi-produced album is a highwater mark in recent dark rock, but hearing their singer play solo was a real revelation. Switching between mandolin and piano, she showed off a versatile, nuanced and even playful vocal style that with the band sometimes gets subsumed in the din of the guitars. On album, her song Ari is a slowly crescendoing, ferociously guitar-fueled epic; live, it was hypnotic and plaintive. As it turns out, it imagines the life of the son Nico had with 70s French actor Alain Delon. A new, ornate ballad featuring some unexpectedly nimble mandolin work followed an upward trajectory; another new one, Fata Morgana was lyrically charged, “shot down by a man with disillusion in his eyes,” she sang with a wounded understatement. A fragmentary piano sketch with a long, intense a-cappella passage was claustrophobic and intense, followed by a percussive, insistent requiem. Her band is back in the studio working with Bisi again, a collaboration that promises even better results a second time around.

Pete Galub followed with a clinic in great guitar solos. He’s reached the point where he ranks with Gilmour, Frisell, B.B., whoever you care to put in your guitar pantheon. Galub matches wit to intensity, surprise to adrenaline and does it over incredibly catchy changes. He’s a powerpop guy at heart, so there’s always a memorable tune playing underneath his rhythmically tricky, dynamically shifting solo excursions. Watching him with just his Telecaster running through a few off-the-shelf pedals, it was a chance to see those solos completely unadorned: you could imagine any backing you wanted and they’d still work, whether that might be the Undertones, Big Star or even ELO. He’s a maven of melodic rock, opening with a relatively obscure but typically tuneful Only Ones anthem, Woke Up Sticky, eventually running through a thoughtfully paced version of his 6/8 ballad Boy Gone Wrong (title track to his surprisingly quiet singer-songwriter album from a couple of years back), and two fiery, noirish, minor-key anthems, the second a bitter, metaphorically loaded kiss-off song. He wrapped up his set with a clever, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reworking of Steely Dan’s Every Major Dude Will Tell You.

Atmospheric, edgy guitar noir soundtrack guy Thomas Simon – whose new album Moncao is one of the year’s best – had booked the night and was next on the bill, but the trains were messed up so it was time to go. And he’s gotten plenty of ink here before.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album Review: Martin Bisi – Son of a Gun

Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.

The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.

Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.

July 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Kerry Kennedy, Alina Simone, Martin Bisi and King’s Crescent at Spikehill, Brooklyn NY 6/14/09

Word on the street is that other than this show and the Smog AKA Bill Callahan/Sir Richard Bishop bill at the former Northsix, the just-completed Northside Festival was a wash. No surprise – only cops like badges. Sunday night at Spikehill was the best of the bunch, not much of a surprise since it was put together by Martin Bisi. Kerry Kennedy was given the choice of opening or headlining, and considering that this was a work night, she chose wisely. In her first-ever solo performance, the noir chanteuse with her 1961 Fender Jazzmaster treated the assembling multitudes to a richly auspicious, all-too-brief set of songs from her forthcoming album with her band. Over melodies steeped in Americana, whether the gothic side of Nashville or further west, she delivered her ominous double and triple entendres in a voice considerably older than she is. It’s an extraordinarily haunting vehicle for her songs, worn with disappointment and regret, understated yet inextinguishably passionate. When she did Wishing Well – which is on her myspace – and went up the scale with “How long into the night will you wait for me?” the effect was viscerally chilling. She ended with a casually menacing ballad, Dive. “Now go and be faithful to your new tragic whore/I’ll see that your grave is kept clean in my yard,” she sang, just this short of a hiss. Kennedy is someone worth discovering now: she could be for New York what Neko Case was for Tacoma.

Alina Simone had a hard act to follow and to her credit, she held up her end. Her shtick is covering songs by Russian cult artist Yanka Dyagileva, the gloomy, defiant Russian underground songwriter who drowned at age 24 under mysterious circumstances and whose collected works were only just released in Russia last year. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by Bisi’s bassist on lead guitar, she sang several of these in the original Russian, including the anthemic dirges From Great Knowledge and Half My Kingdom along with some slightly less ominous originals with a strong Cat Power influence. Toward the end of the set, she switched to tar (a thin-bodied lute popular in Turkey and the Caucasus) and let loose with an impressive, full-bodied wail.

With a five-piece band behind him-  including Ajda from the haunting Black Fortress of Opium on harmonies and a keyboardist in hazmat suit, mask and baseball hat – Martin Bisi’s first song went on for about fifteen minutes. For those unfamiliar with Bisi’s songs, they were the last thing anyone would ever expect from the terse, purist craftsman producer and indie legend who sculpted Sonic Youth and Live Skull out of no wave anomie into tight guitar bands. What he did last night was something akin to what early Pink Floyd was like in concert, but better. Laying down one eerily spiraling guitar loop after another from his black Gibson SG, keyboards swirling behind him, Bisi launched into a completely psychedelic groove which then morphed into a country anthem, a cacaphonic forest of pitch-bending, a darkly carnivalesque section and then an intensely melodic art-rock anthem set ablaze with some fiercely Gilmouresque slide work by the lead guitarist. In sharp contrast, Bisi’s second number, a snide tale “about being stuck in the city and drinking the wine of…dejection,” flashed by seemingly almost before it was done.

A sea chantey-inflected art-rock number illustrating the Persephone myth and a gorgeous, classically tinged dirge brought back the lush feel of the set’s opening number. They closed with a long, Lou Reed-ish anthem that began with a hypnotic series of guitar loops. Bisi goes off on tour tomorrow, with a cast of characters that vary from city to city (considering the depth of his rolodex after all these years, the crew should be choice). And he’s got a new album out – watch this space.

Anything afterward was bound to be anticlimactic – but it wasn’t, as King’s Crescent – including two members of Fiery Furnaces on drums and organ – flipped the script and played a joyous, virtuosic, completely in-the-pocket set of vintage Meters covers. The act after them, Susu, flipped the script again with some intriguing, minimalistic, reverb-infused shoegaze tunes, but by then it was midnight and time to concede to the week ahead.

June 15, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Jeff Zentner – The Dying Days of Summer

Absolutely first-class, richly lyrical Nashville gothic from Asheville, North Carolina tunesmith Jeff Zentner. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, very rustic in places but the lyrical vision is completely in the here and now. The often white-knuckle intensity in the songs and Zentner’s sometimes breathy voice remind a lot of Matt Keating, particularly his Summer Tonight album from a couple of years ago; musically, it’s a lot closer to the nocturnal sound of Ninth House frontman Mark Sinnis’ haunting solo work. Zentner plays pretty much all the instruments here except the piano and harmonium, sparsely and elegantly arranged. The production is particularly smart, the music perfectly matching the brooding feel of the lyrics, an intricate web of stringed instruments awash in eerie, echoey reverb, pedal steel soaring mournfully overhead.

The songs span from vivid narratives, a few sad waltzes and a couple of hypnotic, atmospheric soundscapes, notably Where We Fall We’ll Lie, the most overtly gothic song here with insistent, incisive guitars and hushed, haunted male/female vocals in the same vein as Black Fortress of Opium. With its echoey vocals over acoustic guitar and spiky banjo, the vividly metaphorical, bluegrass-inflected Burning Season may be the strongest track here:

It’s burning season again…

Lays waste to all that we knew

Smoke from the fire rises from the desolate fields

I see the ghosts like a daze…

I did not survive your burning season

I was not the only one

I may be the only person who rises from the ashes…

Slide guitar soaring in the background, Somewhere South of Here is heavy with longing for escape from” this place of trailer parks and auto parts stores,” to “cities built to forget, some great distance south of here.” Night Jasmine is absolutely gorgeous, something of an elegy for the people of the night where he’s from, cello playing off the banjo for some exquisite textures, cigarette smoke hanging in the air as the cicadas drown out the band:

This became a ruin

It can’t survive the morning

Like so many people I know

The Weight of Memory echoes David Bowie’s Five Years:

The good ones weigh more…

The ghosts that in me dwell

They won’t let me sleep

They hurt me so much now

And I’m still a young man

How will I grow old

I have no room inside

The rest of the album mixes wary, doom-obsessed ballads like the pedal steel-driven To Speak Above the Rain with pensive laments, ending with a mix of optimism and dread with the stately waltz If This Is To Be Goodbye:

Let me believe that love’s nature is such

That you’d rather leave me than tell me a lie

Darker than Iron & Wine, more deeply steeped in Americana than Nick Cave, this nonetheless ought to appeal to both camps. Right now Zentner is offering a special, copies of his first album Hymns to the Darkness plus the new one both for $23, email for info. Watch for this on our best 50 albums list of 2009 at the end of the year.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment