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

A Noisy Intense Quadruple Bill Friday at Death by Audio

It was weird seeing a good crowd bouncing and hollering and having a general good time at Death by Audio Friday night. Maybe the newest arrivals in New York are sick of the whole trendoid thing, of being afraid to show any kind of emotion or passion for fear of not fitting in. If that’s true, that’s great and it’s been a long time coming, at least in Williamsburg. Has this place ever had four bands this good in a single night? Probably not.

The Sediment Club opened. One faction here can’t figure out why on earth anyone would want to subject themselves to their hideous sonic assault. The other faction (guess which one) thinks they should be everybody’s favorite band. They take ugliness to the next level. Their guitarist unleashed a chilly, Albert Collins-toned torrent of sonic sludge, wailing up and down on his tremolo bar as his strings went further and further out of tune while another slightly less assaultive wash of sound oozed from the wobbly, deliberately out-of-tune Casio. Yet in a perverse way they’re a very melodic band, the melody being carried by the growly, trebly bass. And a lot of their stuff you can dance to: some of the grooves had a funk beat, a couple of the songs shifting to a perfectly straight-up, poker-faced disco rhythm. The lyrics, screamed by the guitarist, went for the same assaultive vibe as the guitar, especially on a couple of occasions when the songs went hardcore speed.

Nice Face were next. They took their time setting up. Just when the wait between bands started to become really annoying, one of their guitarists fired off what sounded like the riff to Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth by the Dead Boys, which proved to be a good omen. In their own way, they were just as original as the Sediment Club, if a lot more tuneful, at least in a traditional sense. The two-guitar band blends a growling, dirty LES glampunk sound with a lot of different elements, plus a swishy, stagy lyrical vibe that reaches for some kind of menace, their frontman rasping his vocals through a trebly megaphone effect. They worked their way into the set slowly, first with a hypnotic, Black Angels-style vamp, then brought the energy up with a mix of stomping neo-garage rock bolstered with melodic, anthemic 90s-style Britrock changes. As with the Sediment Club, the trebly bass gave the songs extra propulsive boost.

 Woman were next. The  joke is that the band is all guys. They brought the intensity up yet another notch or ten. Like a more rhythmically interesting version of Clinic, they match overtone-laden dreampop swirl to a ballistic noiserock attack, bassist out in front slamming out his riffs while their two guitarists went berserk. The lefthanded guy spun and dipped wildly, cutting loose maniacal webs of acidic noise; the righthanded guy worked more of a purist, Ron Asheton style riff-rock style. Some of the songs blasted along with a hypnotic, repetitive insistence, like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators with better amps; others built off menacing chromatic hooks, the guitars a screaming vortex overhead. Like the bands before them, they take classic ideas – in this case, the Stooges and My Bloody Valentine – and find new, original ways of making them sound fresh and exciting again. They could have played for twice as long as they did – barely 40 minutes – and the crowd still would have wanted more.

The K-Holes headlined. The guys in the band play scorching guitar and caveman Cramps drums – just a kick and a single cymbal. The females handle the bass, vocals, and warily circling alto sax that with a tinge of reverb added some unexpectedly delicious textures. A quick assessment of the gear they were using – what looked like a vintage Music Man guitar amp, Danelectro lyre bass and a huge old Ampeg bass cab – looked auspicious, and they delivered. Like a late 70s version of Destroy All Monsters on really good acid, they fused a rumbling, eerie Link Wray groove with punk and garage rock and just plain good insane squall. Their first song was a long one-chord jam, a launching pad for some serious guitar torturing that contrasted mightily with the sax’s mysterioso chromatics. A hardcore punk tune seemed to be a dis of Williamsburg trendoids: if any band has earned a right to do that, it’s these guys, although the guitarist assured the crowd that they were just being sardonic. The rest of the set blended fiery jangle and clang with an ominous, funereal bassy thud that on occasion picked up into a murderous gallop, the frontwoman sticking her mic into her mouth, Lux Interior style at one point as she screamed. They closed with a “slow jam” that seemed to be in some impossibly complicated time signature but then straightened out into straight-up 4/4 hostility. By the time their too-brief set was over, it was about two in the morning, pretty much everybody had stuck around and after four exhausting if frequently exhilarating hours, still wanted more.

December 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 9/7/09

We do this every Tuesday except for when we don’t – for all you Tuesday peeps, we’ll try to get back on schedule next week. As always, you’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except #1 and #3, which are unreleased, will take you to each individual song.

1. Liza & the WonderWheels – Cold Wind

Haunting, shapeshifting, Penelope Houston-esque anthem from the NYC new wave/psychedelic crew. Brand new and unreleased – you’ll have to go see this live.

2. Woman – When the Wheel’s Red

Noiserock from their delicious new cd.

3. Mark Sinnis – Gloomy Sunday

The Ninth House frontman has revived the original version of the “Hungarian suicide song,” deleting the fake last verse added to the Billie Holiday cover and substituted  a macabre one of his own. From his upcoming third solo cd due out next year.

4. Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes – Anything Can Happen

The former Madder Rose frontwoman and pianist sounds better than ever.

5. Air Waves – Knock Out

Slightly off-key, lo-fi janglepop, fetching and catchy.

6. Emily Wells – Symphony 6: Fair Thee Well and the Requeim Mix

Cool, trippy string-driven triphop anthem.

7. Clare & the Reasons – Ooh You Hurt Me So

Catchy Motown-inflected pop. They’re at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 10/27.

8. The Red Channels – Waltz

Weird kinda creepy lo-fi synth stuff like a more melodic version of the Residents. Is this cool or complete BS? You decide.

9. The Zac Brown Band – Toes

A total Magaritaville ripoff, from the opposite point of view. Is this a soundtrack for assholism or just alcoholism?

10. The French Exit – Your God

We’re just going to keep hitting you over the head about how good this ferocious female-fronted NYC noir band is until they’re huge. They’re at Local 269 on 9/17 at 8.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Sick Debut Album by Woman

There are four people in Woman and they’re all guys. It’s not known what if anything the band name connotes, but it’s definitely not girly. Woman play dark, confrontational, in-your-face noise-rock that sounds straight out of the Lower East Side, 1993. What sets it apart from its antecedents is how tuneful it is. All of the songs here have layers and layers of guitar, howling, screaming, roaring, veering wildly in and out of focus, but the parts all manage to be in the right place at the right time. Since this band is actually very tight, the out-of-control freakouts become all the more intense. This album is like a splatter film that’s at least half suspense: there’s lots of gore, but they save it for when they need it. And then you get buckets. The tunes are always front and center when necessary; ditto the unrestrained savagery. Heavy drums and equally heavy, distorted bass add a shot of molten lead to an already unsteady vehicle.

There are eight tracks on the album to annoy your neighbors with in the wee hours. The first, When The Wheel’s Red layers a firestorm of metallic noise behind a simple catchy warped blues tune, like the Chrome Cranks as done by Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation with some death metal dude on vocals. Track two, Gaol In My Heart is a stomping dirge, very Honeymoon Killers with a little Syd Barrett thrown in – the band pulses and sputters and finally the flames emerge from within the stinky smoke cloud, then it goes into a circular Doors-ish motif that they run over and over behind the squall. The Perfect Night captures swaying neo-boogie blues through the warped prism of a cheap whiskey bottle and ends cold as if they had to cut something off, or the tape ran out

The fourth cut, E-A-T-D-N-A picks up the pace with some unhinged chord-chopping and a wicked hook at the end of the verse that sounds a lot like the late great Live Skull (it figures: indie legend Martin Bisi engineered the album, maxing out the menace in his signature style). Like the previous cut, it stops dead in its tracks. After that, Phosphorescent Glow welds a catchy garage rock hook to ugly Melvins stomp and some charbroiled Ron Asheton licks. The most accessible song on the cd, Fall Into The Fall motors along on a catchy, mean chromatic hook with a Silver Rocket vibe, saving most of the guitar torture for the end. Heavy Water is aptly titled, like early Sabbath with a feedback fixation. The cd ends with the sarcastically titled torturefest Icy Drone, which reminds a lot of Live Skull’s classic cover of the Curtis Mayfield hit Pusherman. Damn, there hasn’t been a band this twistedly good around here in a long, long time. Could somebody please get their labelmates the Chrome Cranks together again for another tour and put them on the road with these guys. Woops…with this Woman. As a special bonus, Bang Records has pressed a limited edition run of 500 vinyl albums in addition to the cd.

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