Fit For Kings: A Compilation of Peripheral New Zealand Music
Birchville Cat Motel
Siberian Earth Curve
Like the weirdest, wildest practitioners of '60s free-jazz, the avatars of the busy New Zealand noise scene have spent the better part of a decade deconstructing music until, some would argue, it isn't even music anymore. There's not much in the way of melody, there is no hook, and there are few beats you can dance to -- just the scrawl and scrape of manipulated sounds, untuned guitars, and the aural screech of sonic distortion and tape-looped white noise, with a few quiet moments thrown in just to keep you off balance. It's certainly not for everyone, even those well versed in the out-there jazz artistry of Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, or the six people in the world who've actually made return visits to the Beatles' "Revolution 9." Still, anyone with a tolerance for aural rebellion or a mind open to considering alternate means of creative expression should appreciate the new ground broken and the barriers being destroyed by the bedroom diddlers in the land of kiwi.
Two new discs issued by the terrific San Francisco-based Drunken Fish Records provide excellent introductions to New Zealand noise. Fit For Kings offers a compendium of ultra-rare singles issued in ridiculously limited editions over the last few years by the Crawlspace label in Geraldine, New Zealand. From the piercing guitar savagery of Children's Television Workshop and Crude to the oddly tranquil slow-burn theatrics of Witcyst, Kings -- like the brilliant Corpus Hermeticum compilation Le Jazz Non from 1997 -- offers a definitive overview of the contemporary NZ noise scene.
Casagrante Apparatus damn near steals the set, thanks to the manic drumming, freak-out guitar gibberish, and saxophone-and-clarinet squawk of "Rico," though Crude's Sabbath-stomping "Mitternacht" and the meandering piano-sax mood piece "Peacemaker" are experimental noise at its quintessence. More-than-worthy contributions from Witcyst, Parmentier, Aesthetics, White Saucer, and Pointsman round out what will no doubt stand as one of the greatest shots from the farthest reaches of pop music's left field.
Siberian Earth Curve is the second full-length effort by Birchville Cat Motel, a one-man operation by Rotorua noise-merchant Campbell Kneale. Like BCM's eponymously titled CD debut from 1997 and the handful of cassettes and singles that preceded it, Siberian Earth Curve is a journey through a dark jungle of frightening electric-guitar clang, synthesized drone, and eerie moments of silence and dramatic open spaces. The set's opener, "Snakes Bark Maple," is a 17-minute epic featuring flourishes of squeaky recorder and severely mangled fragments of guitar underpinned by the wavering hum of God knows what kind of oscillating contraption, wavering in horror-show abandon.
"Fake Fur Pond," meanwhile, maintains a similarly creepy vibe, with a whoosh of white noise punctuated with the occasional tinkle of hell's wind chimes. Like the mayhem captured on Fit For Kings, Siberian Earth Curve is a masterpiece in controlled chaos, a parameter-expanding soundtrack for a film that might be too unsettling to watch. (Drunken Fish, P.O. Box 460640, San Francisco, CA 94146)
-- John Floyd
In an era of live music debacles -- see U2's Pop-Mart tour and the Garth Brooks orgy in Central Park -- and music television featuring style over substance, Johnny Cash is refreshing. For four decades the Man in Black has been recording and writing music, and among those to whom he's been compared -- folks like Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, and Jay Farrar -- he's arguably the most resourceful and consistent.
Cash's solid music and seemingly solid persona (aside from that bout with amphetamines in the '60s) have added even more craggy layers to his trademark baritone. His style is so staid and simple without becoming tiresome that even his early successes, such as "I Walk the Line" (1956) and "Ring of Fire" (1963), stand the test of time without a trace of irony.
With this in mind, Koch has rereleased Cash's 1983 country album, Johnny 99. Originally released on the Sony label, the album filled in the gaps between Cash's problems with Columbia, his failed attempts to get on the charts with the Highwaymen and The Survivors collaborations, and his eventual success with last year's Grammy-winning Unchained.
While Johnny 99 hasn't drawn much attention, it's a solid addition to any fan's library. Cash's resonant voice manages to be both mournful ("Ballad of the Ark") and optimistic ("Girl From the Canyon"). Surprisingly, the two Springsteen cuts, "Highway Patrolman" and "Johnny 99," are the least compelling; despite Cash's soulful delivery, they sound disappointingly hollow. The biggest attractions, no matter what the listener's history with Cash, are "That's the Truth" and "I'm Ragged but I'm Right."
With these songs Cash manages to be playful without diluting any of the lyrics' meanings. And in this age of pomp and circumstance, "I'm Ragged," especially, seems a fitting encomium.
-- Liesa Goins