Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Effectively Announcing FBC!'s Demise As Of Today

 A magnificent porn-y John Currin in between a landscape by John McAllister and an abstract painting by Christopher Wool.

Today I got notice that Google, a monopolistic entity that owns the Blogger platform, a shitload of other things, and doesn't pay its fair share of taxes, is going to ban "explicit nudity" on the blogs it's hosting. I'm pretty sure it's going to continue to allow videos and images of decapitations or soldiers in cage being burnt alive, and racist, antisemitic, homophobic and sexist images and texts on everything it hosts or operates, so as usual that ban on "explicit nudity" smacks of hypocrisy and double standards.
This being said, I've used their product for almost 8  years now in exchange for paying absolutely nothing, so it's not as if I had a choice regarding their stupid users policy. But, even if I did, I've had it with their totally unwieldy format for a long while now, and as many people who blog, I've reach blogger fatigue.

 FBC! was started as a personal space to fend off boredom when I was recovering from a car accident, and nothing else. It's been a bit incidental if it has reached a few people outside of my close friends, and for me it's been really helpful on my long road to recovery, in terms of learning how to write again, trying to organize my thoughts, and getting back into my love of music. Outside of this, the format was always complicated to use, and I never wanted to take it to the next [professional] level.
So, today's announcement was a bit of the last nail in the coffin as far as FBC! is concerned. I occasionally post, er, "mature content" (that's the nature of the beast when writing about art) and I always trusted my 400 or so regular readers to be smart people. But at this stage I do not want to have to deal with "removing sexually explicit content" from the hundreds of posts on here, nor taking the blog "private" out of my own free will. So, effectively, as of March 23rd, Google will forcibly make that choice for me and so FBC! will stop to exist as such.

I will not take the blog offline yet however, because I won't have time to do it for a while, but I'll eventually will get down to it, after I've culled the few posts here and there I want to keep for myself and maybe publish in print sometimes in the distant future (any publisher interested?). Feel free to comment here or message me if there are some specific posts you really like you think would be worthy of a reprint somewhere. Just do it before March 23rd, because this is when FBC! will become "private", whatever the fuck that means in Google parlance.

A close-up of part of an ass,  a scrotum and a bit of a dick in action performing anal sex, from a Betty Tompkins painting.

I won't quit writing though, especially now that I've found a very happy home with Frog Magazine, the best art publication I've ever encountered and for which I am extraordinarily happy and honored to write for. So, if you like my writing, I can only recommend you buy Frog, and discover many other great writers. Frog has articles in both French and English and also publishes really beautiful photo spreads.
I can already announce that I will publish a long feature article on Cady Noland in the next issue, Frog15, as well as a review of the Sigmar Polke retrospective in London. To keep up to date with Frog, you can also like their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.  The next issue should be out in June. If you can't find it at newsstands, ask your art bookstores to stock it, or  you can order it directly online. It's a pricey publication but it only comes out twice a year and has very minimal advertisements, and really a lot of (great quality) writing in it.

I'm also going to publish a long essay in a print catalog about Eric Troncy's recent exhibitions sometimes in the next few months. It will be morbid and maritime, and talking about current things.  I'll announce my future publications on my own Twitter so feel free to follow me on there, just be aware I don't post on it very often and I don't necessarily follow back, not because I don't like you but because I don't like the medium that much. I won't write or publish a lot in the next few months because I unfortunately have to move out of my place as well, so it will take some time, but outside of Frog and this specific catalog, I may very well start something else online in the Fall, if I find a convenient format and platform I am comfortable with. If not, I'll remain print-only and that will be it.

Thanks so much for having been faithful to FBC! all those years, and for putting up with the lack of editing, insufficient research, terrible photographs, and the fact that I've been writing in my second language. Hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.

Blogger new "adult content policy". Fuck you, prudish male straight techs at Google and elsewhere, who are so frustrated you can't get any pussy because you're so lame and misogynistic you take revenge on writers' free speech. That's not how you gonna get brownie points with women, you know?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Shell at Almine Rech Gallery - A Show Organized By Eric Troncy

Alex KATZ, Three Cows, 1981 Oil on canvas 243,8 x 367 cm, 96 x 144 1/2 inches

"Le Panorama ( a literary and critical review appearing five times weekly), in volume 1, number 3 (its last number), February 25, 1840, under the title "Difficult Questions": "Will the universe end tomorrow? Or must it -enduring for all eternity- see the end of our planet? Or will this planet, which has the honor of bearing us, outlast all the other worlds?" [...]

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project,   The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England,  (1st paperback edition), 2002, p.98

It was a bit strange to find oneself in Paris last weekend in an atmosphere of trauma and world ending, many Parisians being shell-shocked enough to display a very unusual if pained niceness in their everyday dealings with each others. Yet everybody kept on going their normal business, in defiance of the trauma, and business there was to be had aplenty, albeit in places prominently displaying the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie posters in their front windows as if to say the show must go on, the show can't go on, the show will go on, the show must go on.
 And so one found oneself attending the opening of The Shell, an exhibition organized at Almine Rech Gallery by über-talented French curator and art critic Eric Troncy, who, as you know if you follow FBC! even occasionally, is the (my) intrepid editor of Frog Magazine, and someone I now find myself lucky to call a friend. If this doesn't constitute the fullest disclosure ever I don't know what else does, but in passing, he's the kind of friend of such caliber that I feel very free to critique what he does, because he's this very rare type of smart guy who can take in criticism (hi, Eric! Hope we're still friends at the end of this post!)
For those of you who like to get  their predigested primers in the form of a press release in advance of taking in a show, Eric Troncy must be the most infuriating of curators/writers ever because he refuses to be a condescending mansplainer uncovering all his choices and the reasons he made them, as he trusts the viewers to make their own opinion about what they see. Yet there was some unearthing of the ideas behind the exhibition in the press release, which for me seemed transparently clear but it may be because I've known a few things about it for a while. I know things. I really do.

Alas, all my pictures of the show suck. Sorry about that.

In a nutshell (ahem) the show is a reflection on the place painting is currently having in today's bloated art market, ostensibly showing current market darlings (Joe Bradley, Alex Israel, Brian Calvin, Christian Rosa, etc.) alongside artists who made it big, sometimes eons ago (Bernard Buffet or even David Hockney) or in the mid-distance, someone like Julian Schnabel who's represented in the exhibition with two (surprisingly) more than decent purplish abstractions (The Day I Missed, 1990 and Later That Day, 1990) that would give shame to our current so-called zombie abstractionists. There's also one of his atrocious dinner plate paintings from the 1980s (Untitled, 1988) for contrast.
 There's a certain sadness in witnessing  Schnabel has in fact been capable of producing paintings that were really good at some point in his career, but somehow ended up as that sort of harmless buffoon symbolizing the excesses of the art world of yesteryear, now being surpassed in fame by the likes of Koons, Hirst or Abramovic (not that we don't envy Schnabel's wealth, mind you). All because he got famous with this bloody dinner plate paintings, which unfortunately obscure the rest. It's the first feat in this show to make one reflects on an artist we usually dismiss as really commercially bloated and uninteresting to realize he had, in fact, all the makings of becoming a good artist, instead of settling for mediocre work that sold. 

Josh Smith, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, Betty Tompkins, Alain Séchas

I said, "ostensibly showing current market darlings " because some of the super smart choices like Betty Tompkins I don't believe have ever been art market darlings ever (I could be wrong, but I don't keep such a close watch on what happens or had happened on the art market over the last decades or so), ditto the French artist Alain Séchas who outside of France isn't particularly well-known. Tompkins is represented by in-your-face black and white (or rather, gray-hued) erotic/pornographic paintings seized for obscenity by French customs in the 1970s, in an innocent era that didn't know yet the ease of finding internet porn of a much more aggressive nature than Tompkins paintings, which now look almost subdued in comparison.
In passing, the paintings are installed very close to each other in the exhibition (less than one foot I think) but when you see the show in person it doesn't look crowded whatsoever, on the contrary the closeness of the paintings to each other makes them come alive more and helps understand better the groupings and arrangements.

David HOCKNEY, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), 31 May, No. 1 2011, 2011

What can be found online, art-wise,  is also a theme of The Shell, and by extension so is the advent of the new technologies so ubiquitous nowadays. Troncy observes (in the press release but also elsewhere, such as in the audioguide available online for the exhibition La Décennie at the Pompidou Metz - in French) that the advent of the internet has totally changed the way exhibitions are conceived and also the way art is distributed and perceived: just perform any Google Image search and jpgs jump at your face seemingly randomly, selected by an algorithm without any obvious reason why they're picked up in the first place over some others.
The way we can now supposedly find any image online - supposedly, because in fact many photos of  contemporary artworks made before, say, 2002 or 2003 are very difficult to find online if they haven't been exhibited recently - has radically changed the way art history is taught, for one thing, and therefore the way future art will be made (that is, if artists are still taught art history).
Before the advent of digital photography and of Powerpoint, instructors were dependent on making/finding slides and often had to rely on re-shooting images out of art catalogs or magazines, themselves contingent on the availability of 4"x5". And so the art history we were told was reduced to a few "significant" choices of images representing which artworks were deemed masterpieces (by whom?), depending on whether they photographed well or not.
In the age of mechanical reproduction, theoretically images could be multiplied indefinitely but in reality not so many artworks were deemed worthy of being photographed, which explains why sometimes we know only a few works from some historically significant exhibitions when the checklist is considerably bigger than the 30 or so plates reproduced in the catalog.

In the age of digital dissemination now just any image can be shot and uploaded in a matter of seconds, and made available for all to grab (I'm loosely paraphrasing Troncy here). I am not sure it has actually diminished the aura of the original artwork itself (if it had the art market would have crashed at the same time of the rest of the economy, maybe) the way mp3s and music streams have destroyed the magic of experiencing music, but it certainly has changed the way art history is taught, and is being constructed in today's hyperpresent.

 Part of a David Hockney, David Ostrowski, John Currin, Christian Rosa

For one thing there are exponentially many more art images to be found online, more often than not without attribution: if we know the name of the artist (frequently misspelled), then the title is missing, if the title is indicated then we're not told when the work was made, if there's a legend somewhere then the techniques and dimensions are missing, and so forth. If we come as total virgins to an artist's work it's not obvious from a Google Image search why some pieces are repeated more often than others, why some periods of the works are more represented than others, etc. (yes, yes, we know about SEO and all that shit, but how it works for art isn't particularly obvious).
And so, if we are to believe the exhibition press release, the paintings in the show were meant to be shown the same way images appear on a Google Image Search, or are "reblogged" from Tumblr to Tumblr without reflection, critical thinking and, one might add, without comment or attribution.

John McAllister, John Currin, Christopher Wool

Yet if there is no apparent hierarchy in a Google Image Search and the selection is made by an automated algorithm, in The Shell the selection is made by a human being and very seasoned curator who knows how to install a show like it's nobody's business. When visiting the exhibition it's rather obvious why some paintings are in the vicinity of the others, often (but not always) because of formal similarities. For example the Ostrowski, Currin and Rosa grouping shows a progression from left to right, with a squiggle within a beige rectangle that offers similarities with the ocher upright rectangle on the screen (where the bra is dangling from) in the Currin, while the abstract Rosa sees both the squiggle motif and the rectangles be present.

Karen Kilimnik, The fancy pretty farm - the happy cows grazing by the fountain, 2012

Likewise, there are similarities between artworks by artists from different generations, which are not necessarily shown in the same room but offer easy points of comparison, such as the lovely if small Karen Kilimnik above and of course the magnificent and much larger Alex Katz at the beginning of this post. A lesser curator would have maybe tried to install one next to each other, and would have failed miserably in any case because of the scale. Speaking of Kilimnik and Katz I'm sure you guys can spot the blooming tree with pink flowers on the lower left corner of the image above, and then have a look at the  the gorgeous and lovely Cherry Blossoms by Katz below and, well, you catch my drift.

 Richard Phillips, Daan van Golden, Alex Katz

Some of the groupings were very convincing, some less so, though it may have to do with individual taste - I'm still not convinced by Richard Phillips, whose painting here was preceded by a Brian Calvin on the adjacent wall - but in the arrangement above I thought the van Golden was a bit extinguished by the Pop-like colors of Phillips but mostly couldn't hold a candle to the really great Alex Katz right next to it.  Which made me want to see a Katz retrospective, stats.

Charlene von Heyl, Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, Bernard Buffet.

This was one of my favorite grouping in the entire exhibition, in no small part because I totally fell in love with the two paintings by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille, who for me were the revelation of The Shell. As far as these three paintings being together it's rather obvious how they all function, so if people can't get it, well, what can I say? Maybe they should consider getting some sort of eye transplant. As for the Bernard Buffet shown on the right, some people at the opening were commenting about its relevance in regard to last week's events in Paris, but Troncy having worked on this show for months and months I'm pretty sure it's a coincidence.
In passing, Troncy has been instrumental and very brave in trying to rehabilitate Buffet's standing as a painter, a courageous move I don't necessarily agree with (nor disagree with, just not my cup of tea but maybe Troncy will convince me otherwise next time we meet). Yet it's interesting to me in terms of how the fads and trends of the market and of art history work, generally speaking. The presence of the Buffet and the Schnabels make a strong point about how the aesthetic permanence of  artworks can mark the collective consciousness at a given time, to give way to mockery and ridicule and aesthetic impermanence after the big sellout has occurred and we get tired of seeing the same things over and over.
It may not be the mechanical reproduction of the artwork that destroyed its aura but rather its ubiquitous repetition (real Buffet paintings were shown in dentist waiting rooms the world over, not posters of them), the same way being subjected to the same songs over and over in supermarkets and shopping malls signals the entry into obsolescence of a proven hit.

Eric Lindman, Brian Calvin, Bertrand Lavier.

Here I thought there was an interesting juxtaposition, which works precisely because of the grouping. I am not sure the Lindman holds itself together as a standalone painting (it's rather bland in its, er, Matisse-esque paper cut/sort of Ellsworth Kelly-like desire to be a sharp abstraction and IMHO fails at it) whereas it works with the Lavier opposite (from the Walt Disney Production series, where Lavier appropriates background "abstract/modern" paintings and sculptures from Disney animated cartoons and blows them up as real artworks). The Lavier also shows some interesting layers that work as a "painterly" signifier over the inkjet print he used. Painterly layers as signifiers of "Painting" with a capital P are used as well in the Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille paintings, and in other works that punctuate the show at very precise moments.
 The layers/brushstroke as painterly signifiers work most interestingly so in the Christopher Wool right next to the John Currin in the "erotic room". The Currin is rather porny, in a great porny way, yay! This specific Christopher Wool painting, as far as his production goes, is rather the blandest and most boring one he ever made. But, in between the Currin (which you should really go see in person) and the really great purplish Schnabel next to it, it just seems to scream "smeared semen" and suddenly loses its overall (and bland, boring and generic) abstract appearance.
I don't know about you, but me, when I saw this, the only thing I could think about was (beside "PAINTERLY SPERM!", I mean) was that it takes a really masterful curator to turn a painting  into something that screams sexual arousal and subsequent release, a painting that in itself, alone, on a blank wall would only want to become some sort of elegant decorative tax-write off for a wealthy collector's foundation.

The exhibition was designed to function as a panorama, that 19th century invention displaying 360º paintings into rotunda-shaped buildings for the entertainment and sometimes education of the masses. At the time they were very popular in Paris, where one arcade abundantly studied by Walter Benjamin, the Passage des Panoramas, still keeps their memory in its name. They were a sort of pre-cinema, so to speak (Benjamin has written extensively about panoramas, if you're curious).
 As the center of the panorama presented by Troncy lays a spectator, here metaphorically represented by the Katharina Frisch sculpture you can see above, staring at my favorite painting in the entire exhibition (by Ida Tursic & Wilfried Mille). Because I know things, and I really do, I know the sculpture is supposed to be the centerpiece that holds the exhibition together, logically so as the prehistoric man represents a sort of perplexed viewer being assaulted by this explosion of paintings surrounding him/her without any kind of apparent logic (yet as I said above there is one when you look closely). As far as it being successful I am not sure its presence was absolutely necessary, because I think the exhibition could hold itself together as well without it. Maybe it's a bit too demonstrative for me but yet again I knew why this sculpture is there whereas I'm not sure how obvious it is for other viewers.

In any case I'm glad that prehistoric man was placed in such a way he could stare constantly at the Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille painting, because these two are very talented painters and the crappy photo above doesn't give justice to their work. This painting alone is worth traveling to Paris to see The Shell, and if someone ever wants to commission me to write a 3,000-word essay on this painting and only this painting, you know where to find me. I'd gladly write it here but then this is going to be the longer than long epic post from Hell, so I'll just state that their paintings need to be seen up close as well as from a distance, because there's a very interesting superposition of layers and brushwork that can't be rendered in photographs. I really love the way the spots of color everywhere on the gray landscape seem to invade it, as some sort of disease spreading everywhere and ready to almost overflow outside of the canvas. If you really love me, my birthday is in April and I think this painting would fit very nicely in my bedroom. I hope.

Another revelation for me were David Hockney's iPad "paintings" as I've never seen them before. They're not  "real" paintings obviously, just inkjet prints of digital images he makes using the painting app of his iPad, but the resulting glossy texture is very appealing and more interesting to me than his older, "regular" paintings (I tend to think  Hockney is a much better draftsman than painter). The only regret I have about these inkjet prints is that to get one large size image, he assembles 4 smaller prints into one, the seams being very obvious when you look at the work up close. I mean, he's David Hockney, I'm sure he has the means to get them printed in one large sheet, if Jeff Wall can do it then so can David Hockney FFS.
 Since the exhibition is also a comment on the resilience and resurgence of painting (on the art market but obviously it goes beyond it) in the era of digital dissemination, and of the way new technologies change the way we experience art, Hockney's works could be a perfect piece of the puzzle if we think about them as the illustration of an idea. But then that would be too simplistic because this isn't the way the exhibition functions, thankfully. One of the Hockneys is situated opposite Katz's cows in the main room (the one with our friend the Neanderthal Man) where it responds formally to it with its green overall tones, but its purple hues also react to the John McAllister's painting that shares the same wall as the Katz. When you are in the exhibition, the most striking thing as a spectator is the way color is used masterfully throughout the exhibition, as in the examples I've just quoted but also with the Schnabels, etc.

This was the other Ida Tursic and Wilfried Mille in the exhibition, where the yellow noodle-like finger painting (not sure it is finger-painting but from a distance it looks like it) oozes over the mountain to cover it, like some sort of dirty material answer to Hockney's own elegant use of iPad finger painting. In the show this was cornered by a black figure on a yellow background by Charlene von Heyl on the left, and the Bernard Buffet sporting a blackish balaclava-clad character holding a rifle on a yellow background, seemingly pointing from his own canvas over the yellow mountain of the Tursic & Mille in the direction of the von Heyl figure (see above).

This one was also of my favorite views in the show, in the same room as the über-porny Currin and the Christopher Wool "smeared semen" painting. The palm trees are a collaboration between Alex Israel and Josh Smith (and there's a Josh Smith painting of palm trees on a pinkish/orangey background in the other room immediately on the left of the door, if I remember correctly), with the curator taking advantage of the architectural decor over the door between the Smith/Israel painting and the John McAllister on the right. Now as far as standalone paintings go I do find the Smith/Israel paintings of no great interest whatsoever (especially when in the presence of  the greats around them) but as an ensemble this is really a great view. Which is why The Shell really succeeds in its presentation "as a panorama without apparent hierarchy", the exhibition as an ensemble is gorgeous and smart even though some of the paintings in the exhibition are less than interesting to me (and, let's be blunt, not particularly good) and couldn't really function on their own.
Which is exactly what happens when you do a Google Image search: some of the images are obvious, many less so, some are relevant, many more are not, and images get repeated while some others that would be obvious when you know what you're looking for don't appear. Images appear out of sequences, and you can get anomalous results based on whatever the algorithm is programmed to do.

Stripes against stripes: Charlene von Heyl next to Bridget Riley.

In this regard the exhibition as a whole can be somewhat cruel to a younger generation of successful artists, such as Brian Calvin whose large portraits (and only those as The Low Road (God Out West), 2006, is rather good ) really pale in comparison to Katz, for example, and as I said I don't think the Smith/Israel collaborative paintings work all that well. The weakest works in my opinion were Jean-Baptiste Bernadet's whose specific brand of late post-Monet in psychedelic colors impresses me as much as the exact same type of New Age paintings made by the hippie wives of Hollywood executives living in retirement communities around San Diego or Santa Barbara. I don't see why they would be more interesting made by a youngish French guy than presented by some sort of elderly Self-Realization Fellowship devotee enthusiastically working for the local amateur society annual show in, er, say, Azusa.
But then the Tursic & Mille paintings hold together fantastically if you consider they're in the vicinity of Alex Katz and David Hockney, and John McAllister does pretty well for himself, thank you very much, and the Jonas Wood is rather cool, too.

The worst paintings in the show without contest, to me, are Richard Phillips's (I am very predictable) not for the same reasons everybody seems to hate Phillips (I, er, don't care that he's successful and rich) but because = Los Angeles commercial painting murals, anyone? Not sure I see such a difference if it's on canvas or on a warehouse wall in North Hollywood, and, er, there's such fantastically great work elsewhere in the show I'm not sure I see any use for these in it, except maybe as  a counterpoint needed for a burst of color here and there within the entire ensemble.

Which functions fantastically in its entirety and manages to make everything shines within groupings and also if you think about it as a whole, with the placement of the paintings within the same room or how they respond to each other formally. Even though there are works I didn't like (and when is it you ever go see an exhibition and you like absolutely every single work in it?) I thought this was one of the most stimulating exhibitions I have seen in a while, and which would deserve a much deeper reflection if I wasn't so pressed for time. For one thing, this is one of the most fantastic exhibitions about painting I've seen in a long time, and an exhibition that asks questions about the validity of market success as an indicator of historic and aesthetic relevance in the long term, showing together heavyweights for whom fame, critical success and commercial success may not  always have been concomitant (Katz was totally outside of fashion, and outside of art historical and critical discourse for a long time, for example) and how these indicators become even more blurred in the age of digital dissemination.
Lastly, like all great exhibitions, it's one of these where seeing images online or elsewhere don't give a real feeling of the impression one gets as a spectator when physically confronted with the art, which is a perfect demonstration that the show drives the point home effortlessly.

Speaking of: you can have a pretty good idea of the show as a panorama on here but you still need to go see it in person. You do.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Favorite Albums Of The Year And Then Some Personal Crap At The End Of This Post

It's this time of the year again, when every single music magazine or website publishes its top 50 or 100 of their favorite albums of the year.
Nobody really gives a shit which ones were mine, beside I am so absolutely predictable anybody who's been following FBC! for the past few years will know *exactly* which ones are my top 3. But, this being December (meaning, not ALL albums of 2014 have been out yet) and because there won't be any new blog post on here until 2015 I thought I should keep FBC! on life support a little bit longer with crap and stuff. Speaking of, there will be other news at the end of this post so if you're not interested in music you can skip to the bottom right now.

Now, let's go back to music. There won't be a "top 100" albums because, as I buy everything on vinyl and I'm a permanently broke writer and translator, I don't buy that many records. My top 7 in decending order:

1. Scott Walker, Sunn O))), Soused. 

I know, I know. I haven't written a review for lack of time but in a nutshell, I think this is the most accessible Scott Walker record in 20 years, because, let's not kid ourselves, this is Scott Walker & backing band much more than a real collaboration.  Here's Brando, the belter on the album, if you don't find yourself singing OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH THE WIDE MISSOURIIIIIIIIIIII after listening to it then you don't know what an earworm is.
Only regret I have: this video is ridiculously stupid, Gisele Vienne should stick to choreography I think. Also, I wish there would have been more interviews of Scott Walker and the Sunn O))) people when the record came out, in terms of promotion because this record deserves to be heard and sold and bought and listened to obsessively over and over again.

2. Swans, To be Kind.

Told ya I was predictable. Musically I don't think the current Swans are super groundbreaking but the intensity of their music is so deep it doesn't matter. A band you need to see and experience live. Gira did a short Q&A in Brussels recently before the concert and stressed that because people don't buy records anymore, in any form, it's becoming difficult to make a living but as a touring band. Which is great for us, the audience, but imagine how hard it is on musicians. Buy records, people, they last longer than your stupid smartphones and tablets and other shit.

3. Liars, Mes.

I love Liars, a band I've never seen live but it's not for lack of want. It's probably the only electronic act I find interesting aside from Dan Deacon (who's going to release a new album soon, I'm told). It goes beyond the usual clichés of electronica yet manages to make you dance to dirty tunes. If there had been no Swans and Scott Walker this year they'd be my #1.

4. Einstürzende Neubauten, Lament.

Not strictly "an album" per se but the soundtrack to a live performance piece commissioned to them for the centenary of the First World War and premiered recently in Dixmude, Belgium. It's narrative and contains some tunes and lyrics not written by EN (the various hymn and Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind, made famous by Marlene Dietrich). As such it is uneven mostly because of the one song where they use autotune, proving to the world that even EN (and John Cale 2 years ago) can't manage to do anything decent with autotune.  Below is a live performance of Lament in Prague.

5. Neneh Cherry, Blank Project

That album came out about the same time as the new St. Vincent one (the indie Lady gaga), which was extraordinarily over-hyped in the same proportion it was overproduced and lacked soul. Meanwhile nobody really talked about Blank Project which I found much more adventurous musically than St. Vincent and had much more depth and soul.  Thank you, Neneh Cherry.

6. The Woodentops, Granular Tales.

 The Woodentops were one of my favorite bands when I was a teen, long, long ago sometimes in the last century. They made a new record that came out this year but unfortunately for them they're signed with Cherry Red, a label that doesn't bother with promotion and vinyls for things that should count. There are very few videos on YouTube alas, but trust me, this album is very good. Buy it, if only for A Little More Time, the best song on the record I think.

7. Hauschka, Abandoned City

A really good album of prepared piano music. It certainly lacks John Cage's use of silence and to a certain extent also lacks subtlety (there are some slow numbers which aren't very far removed from shopping mall piano playing, especially on the extra tunes you get if you buy the vinyl. In passing, this is a very generous gesture) but it's an excellent gateway drug to more experimental or interesting music straddling the divide between indie (for lack of a better word) and contemporary "classical" music. A bit disappointing live but apparently his physical handsomeness makes up for that in the eye of his audience.

And that's pretty much it for my end of year list. Told ya I didn't get to buy that many albums. If you want to contribute to the "let's extend the Frenchy musical library" fund, all monetary donations are accepted.
There were lots of other records my friends seemed to have loved, but that didn't do anything for me, such as The War On Drugs (boring) and Girls In Hawaii. I've seen a lot of people enamored of the new Perfume Genius, but alas I listened to it only after seeing the band live and, uh if you have pitch problems as a singer and your material so depends on adventurous and difficult singing, it's an issue. The few songs I heard from the record were very interesting but unfortunately that live experience totally ruined it for me.

And now that this year is nearly over, something deeply personal. I had started this year in the pits, as some of you know, and didn't expect much improvement as it went on. Yet at about the same time last year, about seventy people reached out to me on Facebook and somehow made things more bearable to me. I would like to thank all of you collectively, for taking the time to be supportive and loving when I truly needed it.  It was an astonishing and truly beautiful experience for me, especially as many of the people who messaged me were virtual friends I've had not much contact with before. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all, it's been much, much appreciated. And also very humbling.
After this, everything that could make 2014 better happened: the new Lydia Davis book came out, and then there was the Swans record, the Liars one, and blowing everybody away, the new Scott Walker one. It can only be a good year when all these bands release an album, right?

Something else wonderful that happened this year is I started to collaborate to Frog Magazine (a print only art and architecture biannual publication) where I found a happy home writing and publishing, thanks to its marvelous editor, Eric Troncy whom I finally met in person this year, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (hi, Eric!).
All of you who read FBC! for the now super rare art writing, I'd like to encourage you to go and buy Frog, because there is some truly great writing in it, all the photos are taken by contributors (i.e. not the same press photos we see over and over again in other mags).
In the next issue that will likely be out in the Spring of 2015 there will be a review of Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern written by yours truly as well as a feature on Cady Noland, and a review of Robert Gober at MoMA with really great photos by Grant Wahlquist, thanks to Chuck Kim's help in securing the photo op.
And in the latest issue (#14), which you can buy online at the link above but also at select vendors worldwide, I've published a very weird article that starts as a review of an exhibit of the late French TV stage magician Garcimore at a roadside museum but somehow manages to cover Marina Abramovic's magic pee, the distinction between mainstream culture and the possibility of an indie one in contemporary art, and lots of other things.
I'm not sure exactly what I've done with that one, to be honest, but I'm rather happy with it, a rarity with my own writing, so if you're curious take a gander at it. And if you read French I can only recommend you read ALL of Eric Troncy's articles. He's the best thing that ever happened to art writing, and, personally, to my own writing as well.

Monday, September 29, 2014

I've Seen Gods On Earth And They Are The Almighty Swans

Swans At Brussels' Ancienne Belgique, September 25, 2014.

I've seen Gods on Earth and they are the almighty Swans.

 Little did I know, when as a teen I bought their red-colored vinyl record of Love Will Tear Us Apart covers (Michael Gira doing singing duties on one side, Jarboe on the other) in my shitty little provincial hometown that one day I would get to see these strange radical New Yorkers -as they were then- play live one day.
Which is why I'm so grateful to all these bands reforming these days and playing live, even if sometimes if makes me feel like my parent's generation deciding to attend a Rolling  Stones concert at some giant arena in 1982.
Not that Swans has anything do to with that sort of things of course, but I'm just happy they're having records of new music out* and that they're touring often.

 The concert was preceded by a rare public interview with Michael Gira at Huis23, a cosy intimate space above the venue's bar where about 60 of us gathered to see the cowboy-hatted man answer a few questions.
Asked if he did that often he said, "no, it's the very first time and the very last one, too!" It was very short, and the questions were not so interesting  -pro tip: when you interview an artist, musician, writer, filmmaker… ask them about THEIR work and not every other band under the sun- nonetheless Gira gave some interesting answers and also proved himself tremendously funny.

Asked why the band didn't play old material he said that they did that after they reformed a few years ago but that he realized they were "wasting time, and it felt fake somehow" like some sort of old bands reforming to cash in I guess, so he decided to forge ahead with new material.
  He spoke a little bit about running his own label and how he decided ultimately to only use if for his own band, which has all to do with current music economics: you all young fuckers downloading the music for free and never buying records, despite a lot of people being interested in what he was putting out (check the link above and buy stuff there!). And that it involved a lot of energy and "I'm not 30 anymore, and I have children and stuff" and so he preferred to focus on his own activities and manage to survive doing that.

 He told a funny anecdote about recording with Devendra Banhart and wanting him to focus on a vocal take, and playing some sort of private performance à la Joseph Beuys' Coyote (I Like America And America Likes Me) whereupon he stripped naked and threw a blanket over his head, running around in the studio like a mad man to elicit some sort of reaction from Banhart.
He also answered a lot of questions about other bands (yes in the 1980s he felt more of a kinship with Einstürzende Neubauten than bands like Sonic Youth, no, there's nobody like Swans out there today, etc.)
Also as the host kept on prodding him about "radical bands" and "radical music" and "radicality" [sic] in general in the end he said something like "I'm not sure being radical is really something desirable" (which I take it to mean "for the music's own sake"). There were some interesting bits about working in the studio and starting from mistakes, which every musician worth their salt always talks about. And after 20 minutes it was over, and time to get dinner for me and avoid (thank Lucifer) most of the opening act, Pharmakon. What I caught from her was some incessant wailing over electronic music which… give me back Lydia Lunch or Diamanda Galas, please. Talking about radicalness.


The venue was at capacity and the audience was a mix of middle-aged people who have known Swans for several decades like yours truly, and also much younger people who, despite what you would expect my generation to label them, weren't really hipsters. Thankfully there aren't that many hipsters in Brussels, but even if there were… I don't think they are the enemy.
The gear on stage was stacked in such a way that there was very little room in front for the musicians to move, which must be some quirk from the band because the stage is actually very large. Thor Harris and the drummer (Phil Puelo, Wikipedia tells me) were a little bit behind the stacks.

The lights went out at 8.15 PM sharp (they're always on time at Belgian venues) and… the mighty Thor Harris came on stage and started to bang on his gong slowly… and slowly… and slowly… and I thought, uh oh is it going to be some sort of prog-like slow boring something? Then came Christopher Hahn on lap steel guitar (from where I was on the 1st balcony I actually thought it was a synth or some sort of keyboard) and it went on… slowly… and on... then  came Gira and the rest of the band … and so the world exploded.

It's hard to describe a Swans concert and I'm going to fail like everybody else before me, because words are really lame in trying to recapture what is a collective trance-like atmosphere where everybody is enraptured by the music. It's true what everybody else says: it is ear-shatteringly loud. But not much more than a Dan Deacon concert or even a Sparks one. Having been warned by the lovely Barry Schwabsky who saw them recently in the US (hi, Barry!) I had made sure to bring my own earplugs (if you ever go to a concert in Belgium, most venues if not all usually give you free earplugs when you ask at the bar) but I took them off intermittently. The loudness is powerful enough to make the floor and walls vibrate, and all your body as well, which I'm sure must be the scientific reason why everybody is communing so well with the music as the band plays on.
It doesn't however muddies the sound whatsoever, and so you get to really appreciate the use of percussive elements. There is of course a strong "American music" feel to Swans because it is primarily a guitar band (or so you would think), where guitars sculpt drone-like repetitive sound, which comes in great waves crashing out and washing out all over you.

But I think it's only on stage that Thor Harris' importance to the music becomes obvious and you understand what he brings to the band: he's not only a powerful percussionist but a delicate multi-intrumentist as well who plays I think clarinet (I was far…) and some sort of string instrument with a bow, and the trombone. But even when that moment of recognition comes, it is fleeting because witnessing a Swans concert is something that takes you away from "normal" gigs, even if there are some highlights -Thor Harris crashing his great cymbals in synch with Gira jumping on the stage with his guitar, Harris bare-chested playing trombone, Gira and Hahn kinda "jamming" together with Hahn looking like an evil character out of a Lynch movie, which is rather incredible for a seated musician.

 It's fleeting because it's music you can't take apart and say, pore over the lyrics, dissociate some chord from another, analyze how it works, what it does, especially what it does as it is impossible to describe. You could say, "the band is tight", "it's a whole" but even this doesn't even begin to describe it. There's a certain perfection of craft, in any craft, when you have a group of people working  in  absolute synch together, and producing something that is more than the sum of its parts, and Swans is that more.  And the audience comes to feel it and be part of this more, too, experiencing something that all religions the world over would be at pain to ever match, because it is a more that is real. Like all great music the sound that comes out of these musicians is almost tactile, but unlike merely good music it can't be reduced to "slow song", "uptempo number", "great hooks" and not only because the music is more drone-like than anything else, because it isn't only drone-like nor repetitive. You can hear it, you can feel it, you can almost touch it.

 Swans is probably the best live band on the planet right now because it sculpt sounds with an intensity that is unmatched by anybody or anything else, and there is a sort of manic energy that runs through the various songs/tunes/pieces (most from To be Kind plus one I didn't recognize at all that I don't think was on The Seer but, hhhmmm, I think the lucid part of my brain was pretty much gone by then). I tried to record some video snippets at various moments, only snippets because I didn't want to hold my camera throughout when the only thing I wanted to do was be in the moment and enjoy the gig.
Which is a trite way to describe the sort of feeling you have when you are at a Swans concert, aside from saying that as a spectator, you are indeed in the moment. There is nothing before and no mental recognition of what would be an after, you are, indeed, here, now. It's a bit beyond music, that power to make you just be. Now.

And it also makes you think, once the lights come on again, and the band has left the stage, and the rumble of hundreds of feet and bodies moving to reach the exits reaches you -nobody talked much after, really- it does make you think that there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the visual arts that can ever match this intensity. Nothing.

* Filth is being reissued on vinyl next month, if anybody reading this loves me and has some spare $, you know what I want for Christmas.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Audience Is Waiting. On the late music of Scott Walker.

In December 2012 Scott Walker released Bish Bosch, the last record in a trilogy with which he has established a very personal style so far unmatched by any other musician. In 2013, after listening to each record in succession over a period of several months, I wrote the following text for an essay contest, albeit with a different (and, admittedly, really crappy) introduction. The text was prompted by the music, obviously, but also by the many reviews and reactions I had read then, none of which ever matching my experience of listening to the music. I must confess having come very late to the music of Scott Walker, maybe 4 or 5 years ago only, and via his later output, being totally ignorant of his 1960s music.  The text was also written from the point of view of an art writer, a bit as if it was a piece of visual art. It was also intended for a general audience, initially, so I tried as much as possible to write it  in non-artspeak. I had shelved it after a few unsuccessful attempts to pitch it to music magazine,  and thought about maybe posting it later this year when his collaboration with Sunn 0))), Soused, was going to be released on Sept. 22nd, but as today marks FBC! 7th anniversary and that I'm in no real mood to write anything else, here it is for your enjoyment. Or not.

“The audience is waiting
 Its audience is waiting 
Its audience is waiting 
Its audience is waiting”
Scott Walker, “Hand Me Ups”, The Drift, 2006

The Audience Is Waiting. On the late music of Scott Walker.

Looking up  at what established critics have written about Scott Walker's recent output, and being confronted with qualifiers such as “terrifying, harrowing, austere, arcane, inaccessible, difficult, taxing, demanding, dense, austere, impenetrable, dark”, one cannot help but feeling doomed to fail at describing the experience of listening to it. But as the artist himself has said in the 2006 documentary 30th Century Man “I fail lots of times, but at least I’m trying.”
Let’s try.

The Artist, The Audience.
Scott Walker, born Noel Scott Engel in 1943, is nearly as old as rock music and pop music, if you will, having gotten his start as a teenage singer in the 1950s, in the wake of the commotion caused by Elvis Presley’s success. In the United Kingdom, he is mostly known or remembered as the lead singer of 1960s band The Walker Brothers and as an immense Pop star back then, who went solo in 1967 and released in quick succession four albums of delicate and timeless Pop music, backed-up by soaring orchestras that enhanced his famous baritone voice. He’s also credited as introducing Belgian singer Jacques Brel to an English- speaking audience by being the first one to cover his songs, later sung by the likes of David Bowie and Marc Almond.
The story goes that Scott Walker lost himself in the 1970s by recording mediocre albums of middle-of-the-road standards, before resurfacing as an avant-garde musician in 1995 with his record Tilt, following in the footsteps of earlier attempts, his 1984 solo record Climate of Hunter and the four songs he composed for the Walker Brother’s final album Nite Flights, after they had briefly reformed for a failed come-back. This story is of course incomplete, and as such has only served to grow a myth, about a reclusive and mad genius who releases a new masterpiece once every decade, using strange sound-making techniques and devices in the studio.
The reality is probably more complex, his glacial rate of delivery having to do with record companies’ corporate issues and with their need for commercial pragmatism, in addition to Walker’s own self-avowed slow rate of production.
The result of this complicated tale we’ve been fed however is that there seems to exist a split within his audience, between the part that grew up accustomed to his magnificent but still largely conventional music, and a newer one more interested in his recent adventurous 
output. That some people might enjoy both is rarely acknowledged, not least by the artist himself who’s convinced his old 1960s fans cannot abide his newer music. A quick look at comments on video sharing websites or social networks appears to confirm this: “rubbish”, “garbage”, “crap”, “trash”, or the ultimate crime, “pretentious” have been used to describe his recent songs, while some people, seemingly unaware Walker likely doesn’t read their comments, use the same pages to plead or demand he “goes back to his old style, to accommodate his fans”.
Walker’s most recent album, Bish Bosch, was released at the end of 2012, several years after The Drift (2006), completing the trilogy started with Tilt (1995). With this latest record, we are now afforded the possibility to comprehend better what he has been doing for the last two decades or so, to situate it within a larger context. As if to further complicate matters, the Scott Walker actuality has been quite busy recently when a box set of his first five solo records Scott Walker The Collection (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, Scott 4 and ‘Til The Band Comes In) was commercialized earlier this year, accentuating the divide between fans of his older music and lovers of his newer output. Though in truth the latter set tends to also enjoy early Scott Walker music, so the musical divide might simply be a generation gap rather than a real, sharp aesthetic division.
The box set also helped to finally attempt a comprehensive examination of the artist’s work, allowing to detect in early songs the roots of his current musicianship, as evidenced in a recent article by John Doran on the specialized music website
The Quietus. Viewed retrospectively, old songs such as Plastic Palace People (1968) with its fragmented lyrics and breaks of rhythm within the same tune help understand the evolution that lead to Walker’s current work. Other songs like The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime) or Hero Of The War, both on Scott 4, are just the seeds which Bolivia 95 and Patriot (A Single) on Tilt will grow from several decades later, their lyrics as political and poetical at the end of the 1960s than they will be at the turn of this century.
Outside of the United Kingdom, Walker’s reputation and fame are rather murky. Except maybe in Japan, he’s virtually unknown as a former pop star, which helps with a better reception of the
Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch trilogy. For one thing it is the esteem in which these records are held critically that has paved the way for people to rediscover his early work, as in the United States.

What It’s All About Is Not “About”.
When confronted to the Scott Walker of the 21st century, it helps to think about other mediums outside of music, such as literature or visual arts. Most music critics tend to compare Walker to T.S Eliot, Samuel Beckett or James Joyce, understandably enough as his lyrics draw from language tropes most famously pioneered by these modernists, however these comparisons are unhelpful in the sense that they are used by the reviewers to try and explain away what this music “is about”.
That this music is wholly unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something might be a more interesting avenue to explore. That this music is unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something may be what makes it unbearable to anyone attached to simple answers and used to a completely passive reception. That this music is unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something is also why it is so new and fascinating.
If we lose the impulse to try to explain it away we can look at other elementary questions, like the ones an art historian starts with when confronted with an unknown artwork outside of an immediately recognizable context. What does the work do? What does it want? Where does it exist?
Impulsively some quick answers come forth: what the work does is to simply exist, as such it is new, it creates its own style, and as every single artwork that operates as “new”, it doesn’t come from nothing, even when it does seem to appear out of thin air. So let’s look at it, now that we have a body of works within which we can draw comparisons.
In the visual arts field, most enduring artworks are effectively not “about” something, because in the space where they exist they are multi-layered, dealing with complex influences, functioning in a fuzzy cultural and social context, answering to historical and mundane demands alike, interfering or dialoguing with vernacular and elitist tropes. They appear: irritating, dense, scandalous, annoying, puzzling, funny, bleak, scary, strange, encountering resistance and praise, sometimes failing their creators’ original intent but succeeding in changing the then-current rules of the game, or more prosaically the artistic conventions of the context within which they function.
As such, they often meet the incomprehension and the mockery of a general audience, the same general audience whose offspring will flock museums, concert halls and literary commemorations later on: witness the annual
Bloomsday celebrating James Joyce in modern- day Dublin, the success of the many Picasso or Warhol retrospectives, and the reverence accorded to modern recreations of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s Rite Of Spring. Yet all these works have caused a scandal and met a large resistance when they first appeared.
The late Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley was reviled as a jokester in the 1990s, yet his recent retrospective (December 2012-April 2013) held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam attracted nearly half a million people. Marcel Duchamp, the seminal 20th century artist whose
readymades influenced everything from Pop Art to 1980s Appropriation Art, used to say that the audience accepts unconventional artworks only after a certain delay. It proved certainly true for many influential movements and artists from the end of the 19th century to the Postwar ones, so revered nowadays that it is sometimes difficult to understand the outcry that greeted them when they first appeared. As they’ve been slowly assimilated and even co- opted, at least superficially, by latter-day graphic designers and interior decorators, as attested by the way the radicalism of Minimalism has been absorbed by contemporary corporate office design, the uproar they met when they were first offered on view seems incomprehensible.

Out Of Thin Air
Listening to Scott Walker in the 21st century can sometimes prove a challenge to an audience unaware or unaccustomed to a wide array of musical genres that exist outside of mainstream Pop music, yet there is an ever-growing circle of listeners who latch on his songs without hesitation. For this audience, there is a musical context, which without being directly traceable as an obvious influence on Walker makes it familiar to ease into his music. This context is often ignored or goes unmentioned in reviews of his work, sadly, as they tend to focus on the apparent dichotomy between his 1960s pop music and his recent dissonant one. Dissonance in itself is important if you recall it is a leading principle of modern and contemporary classical music, along with atonality. Modern and contemporary music is roughly contemporary to Modernist art and literature: most milestones like Schoenberg’s “Scandal Concert”, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Kandinsky’s invention of abstract painting, or Duchamp’s readymades were all made or released around 1911-1913.
Abstraction, cerebral art and atonality have been with us for a good century and for the culture at large we’re only getting accustomed to it now. Outside of high culture, in the musical world most of us inhabit, the one that encompasses popular and vernacular music released commercially, we’ve been used to underground, alternative and independent music for many decades as well, music that strives to be experimental, unconventional and innovative.
Some of it was ignored at the time of its making but grew extremely influential, with bands like The Velvet Underground; other acts whose perception of eccentricity has more to do with image like Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart, their music not really sounding unconventional or difficult anymore today, still managed to attract a sizable public.
A bit more foreign to a mainstream audience, some niche genres such as industrial music have existed since at least the mid-1970s, with pioneer band Throbbing Gristle in the UK (1975) or German band Einstürzende Neubauten (1980), later bigger acts such as Nine Inch Nails, acknowledged as an influence by Walker, brought the genre to a larger international audience in the mid-1990s. Outside of industrial music, Walker is known for being a lover of classical music, as well as of modern and contemporary classical music. Composers Turnage, Kurtag, Berio, Ligeti or Lachenmann are often mentioned in interviews or were played at the Meltdown Festival he programmed at the Southbank Center in 2000. He has also often talked about his love of progressive jazz back in the 1960s, and as for current mainstream rock bands, he’s a Radiohead fan. An audience that is accustomed to these types of unconventional music might be naturally drawn to what Walker does nowadays.

The Audience Is Reading
Listening carefully to the Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy in successive order, we can recognize an evolution, with Tilt introducing the brand new style created by Walker, and in retrospect probably the easiest of the three to get into, The Drift being a consolidation and refinement of the same style, while Bish Bosch clearly opens up new possibilities and directions in his development, hinting at a more baroque and diverse future output while signaling a sort of irregular closure of the cycle. Like most groundbreaking works in all mediums, these records are by no means perfect. They offer however a certain methodical construction that even an untrained ear can recognize, when listening attentively. Interviews with the artist can also be illuminating in getting a deeper understanding about his creative process.
In all his interviews Scott Walker explains that he starts all his songs by writing the lyrics, later on molding the sounds and the music to match them. Read separately from the music, the lyrics are poetical with an often lush imagery yet they can appear nonsensical because of the complex puns, metaphors and figurative expressions assembled together in a non-linear way. Nevertheless there is a narrative continuity to them, as well as common themes: violence, decay, anatomy, eroticism, fauna, astronomy, wars, dictators, and childhood. There are even some love songs. Some of his songs are clearly explicit in denouncing the horrors of war but associated with a poetic language that brings them beyond a simplistic political message. Walker has also been insistent that there was humor throughout all his records, though it is the most apparent in
Bish Bosch you can catch glimpses of it on his other albums. Walker himself rarely offers explanations about his lyrics save for some well-known
examples, so we get to know that Jesse (on The Drift) is a song responding to 9/11 – here paraphrasing Walker in the interview he gave in the documentary 30th Century Man – a song visually composed by juxtaposing the images of the vertical twin towers, reflecting “American hubris” but having “no spiritual reflective qualities” in contrast with the horizontal vision of the American prairie where Elvis Presley, in a nightmare, speaks to his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon whom he cannot see and who is therefore deprived of “a reflective quality” himself.
Pretty much all of Walker’s song lyrics share this jumping from one idea to another via associative pairing or aural puns, which at first listen give a very fragmentary idea of what is going on. It’s only when listening to the music several times over that the structure of the songs become apparent.
Because he uses many words coming from foreign languages, they sometimes come out as nonsensical, though they make sense once you understand the underlying themes. For example a song about the Balkan wars would refer to Bosnian place names, or on the contrary the place name translated in English would open another entire new avenues by using free words associations. Sometimes the listener understands them instinctively, sometimes not at all; depending on their level of obscurity Walker occasionally offers footnotes and references on the album sleeves or the lyrics booklet. These can be helpful sometimes, but in truth they don’t always feel necessary.

The Audience Is Listening.
Now as for the music, it also follows an inner logic that makes lots of sense once Walker unveils the main rule that underlines his creative process: as the lyrics are what come first to him, the music has to match them, sometimes quite literally. In an interview recently published in the magazine The Believer, he explains how the drums in the song See You Don’t Bump His Head on Bish Bosch are there to match the image of the swan in the lyrics, where the bird seems to be gliding majestically over the water while below the surface it is frantically paddling, to keep on moving.
Once that principle of sounds corresponding to the lyrics or trying to give the best possible approximation of them is understood, then the infamous percussive meat-punching for the song Clara on The Drift becomes evident as a signifier for the mob defiling the corpse of Mussolini’s mistress after she’s been executed along the Italian dictator. Aside from the Foley effects used on his records, the songs themselves tend to be built to include many moments of silence, “silence” being defined by Walker as the origin for the lyrics and as an essential part of the music itself.
All the music is constructed according to an internal structure that isn’t made to be obvious to a listener, so the traditional verse-chorus-bridge we’ve been used to with Pop music and rock’n’roll is noticeably absent, though there are repetitions of musical patterns and lyrics in most songs.
When we switch on the radio, go shopping, hear movie soundtracks, go to restaurants and bars, most of the current commercial music that we’re passively subjected to is constructed around drum loops or build with the idea that the beat is the essential component holding the song together as an entity.
Walker’s music is totally opposite: there are breaks and changes within the beat, and sometimes there isn’t any beat at all for very long moments. These shifts in patterns are startling to an audience that isn’t used to them, though they are relatively common in
contemporary classical music. The other changes that tend to shock and surprise the listener are the shifts in registers when Walker sings, which are likely the source of the dismay or even the disgust expressed by some of his [now former] audience, the one that screams “bollocks” in capital letters in YouTube comments under videos from The Drift or Bish Bosch. Journalists invariably mention Walker’s current singing style as “strangled”, “as if his testicles were being squeezed” which immediately signal that they haven’t really listened to the records in their entirety, because you can’t really hear that in songs such as Cossacks even though it is the opening tune on The Drift, or that they somewhat missed the recent video clip for Epizootics! from Bish Bosch, a song where you can clearly hear his baritone though not throughout.
In all the records in the Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy, Walker doesn’t restrict himself to one singing style but rather sings in at least three different registers, his regular baritone as well as some lower and higher range, sometimes shifting from one to the other within the same song. The singer’s magnificent baritone has been lauded everywhere as one of the greatest male voice of the 20th century, consequently the high register he sometime uses in his songs seems to be the one that rankles both his old fans and his current detractors, who regret that he has “abandoned his own voice”. He hasn’t actually done that but rather has added two different registers to his usual one and has been prominently using the tenor-like over the others, something he explains in interviews once again by the need to voice his lyrics according to their internal structure, but also in terms of pitch in relation to the way the rest of the music is laid out.
When listening carefully to Walker’s current singing style and his shifts between registers within the same song, the most strikingly strange thing isn’t his use of the high register, but first and foremost his diction. It is so impeccable it does indeed sound peculiar, the same way opera singers can sometime sound incomprehensible when they sing in English as every single word is so impeccably pronounced.
Walker articulates his singing so clearly and precisely that every single letter and sounds comes out crystal clear: no final “s” is ever forgotten, every single “th” so exact you can almost picture his tongue being placed between his teeth. His phrasing and articulation are so perfect as to manage to convey humor even with onomatopoeia, which he uses sometimes in appropriated lyrics, bringing echoes of Baroque singing with, say, a marked elongation of consonants or an over-artificial way of repeating “la la la la”. But this use of ultra-precise phrasing and diction isn’t new at all, as it can be heard as early as in the Walker Brothers day, in their cover of Land Of Thousand Dances for example.
In his recent music, it is just used as yet another tool to emphasize the prominence of the lyrics, as an additional instrument at the service of the music in its totality rather than a personal mean of self-expression. If you start hearing it as such then it becomes clear that the voice and the singing are the binding element of the music. It’s not the beat that holds a Scott Walker song together, since it is not continuous indeed nor the melody since it also shifts all the time; but the precise articulation of the lyrics by the voice, a voice that Walker wants to see purged of its ego or personality so as to express a universal experience of “another kind of self”. One can only hazard guesses at what this another kind of self is, a sort of collective persona that could sum up the absurdity of human existence with all its travails but also all its redemptive experiences (love, beauty, empathy, humor). In this context, the famous Scott Walker’s baritone ceases to be the trademark of a former Pop star but just another means at the musician’s disposal in the vast array of instruments needed to complete the music. Therefore it can be modified, adulterated or bypassed in favor of another register more apt to convey a particular piece of lyrics, without any concern about whether the voice sounds “natural” or not.
Its volume also reinforces the artificiality of the voice and the diction: Walker can shift from a whisper to a shout to spoken words to a snippet of melody within the same minute. By doing so he has pretty much invented his own style of singing, a style that is so new very few musicians have been able to cover his recent material successfully, a style that can appear unnatural because we’re not yet used to it.

The Voices And Their Audience
For someone coming new to his later work without any knowledge of his 1960s career, the debate doesn’t really exists, but for clarity’s sake the question of natural versus unnatural range and register deserves a quick detour.
Now that we’re living in the 21st century and have been used to so many singers in both pop and classical music singing outside of any “natural” or “conventional” range, from falsetto (Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Russell Mael) to counter-tenor (Alfred Deller, Klaus Nomi) you wonder why Walker’s use of a different one from his natural baritone in the music he’s been making for almost twenty years now is so disturbing. Especially at a time when nobody seems to think twice about how artificial and bizarre Autotune sounds when added to the voice of Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga yet their records and songs sell by the millions. Outside of pop music, Schoenberg has come up with
Sprechstimme as early as 1912, and once again we can quote opera or baroque singing as rather unnatural for untrained singers. More recently we’ve been used to the recitative spoken lyrics expressed in hip-hop music, a genre that pretty much radically did away with a lot of the melody and put the beat at the forefront of the music.
Take seemingly niche musical genres such as Death Metal and Black Metal, where singers routinely seem to be vomiting rocks when uttering fairly disturbing lyrics about mayhem and murder, on top of complex distorted musical structures. All the same these types of singing styles are no more conventional than Walker’s yet don’t encounter the same type of indignant resistance. In most cases they’ve been already digested, sometimes via assimilation by more mainstream acts, sometimes because of the powerful effect of dilution and dissemination operated by movie soundtracks. We have yet to see how David Bowie’s homage to Walker’s current singing style in his latest record could help spread it, but just the fact it has been recognized as such in the mainstream media signals a flicker of recognition.

The Audience Is Waiting.
So, what is so new with Walker’s music that makes it difficult to immediately assimilate? Is that the voice, then, considering the various singing styles enumerated above? The only real difference is that with Walker, the breaks in the beat patterns added to the use of different registers within the same song create surprising variations. Where Walker creates his own style is for one thing the musical domain where he operates, because he is neither a contemporary classical musician nor an alternative artist, as he uses instruments and orchestrations that belong to both genres, bridging them in something that doesn’t exist elsewhere yet. Contemporary classical music sometimes make uses of electric instruments associated with rock and roll, while some rock musicians have occasionally used the power of multiple instruments inspired by classical orchestras to create new works, like Glenn Branca’s guitar pieces. What these lack usually is a singer. There are unconventional singers in contemporary classical music, there are rock acts that play with large orchestras, but rarely do these mix together to create a brand new genre.
A striking thing comes up repeatedly when musicians who either worked with Walker or enjoy his music comment on how what he does doesn’t belong to anything known musically: it is not classical, it is not avant-garde, it is not Pop or rock music, it isn’t harmony, it isn’t discord, but something that exists at the frontier between all of these. It escapes any known definition as of now, and because it occupies such an uncertain space it produced discomfort in the listener. That uncertain, undefined space is a space that moves away from known musical conventions.
It is not only the voice that is unconventionally used in Walker’s music, but the whole structure of the music that constantly shifts unto itself, a process that Walker explains as a way to avoid complacency in the listener. In very simple terms, the titles of the last three records are fairly revelatory about what the music somehow does: it tilts, it drifts away from accepted musical tropes, to somewhat unsatisfactorily wrap up with
Bish Bosch: the job is done, sort of, with an atrociously bad pun that also shifts from “bish bash bosh” to “a kind of universal female artist”, according to interviews given by Walker. One doesn’t have to swallow this explanation whole, but listening to the last album you can sense another departure, another shift for Walker. This record is irregularly shaped, like a baroque pearl, it sounds more dynamic, more diverse than the two previous ones, more humorous as well, a bit as if Walker was announcing he was done exploring the sound he had created and was now ready to experiment with new avenues with the next record. It’s also less tight and compact than Tilt and The Drift, and if it contains great up-tempo songs (See You Don’t Bump His Head, Epizootics!) it doesn’t present such magnificent and beautiful highlights like Farmer In The City or Rosary (on Tilt) or Jesse and A Lover Loves (on The Drift).
There’s a certain abandonment of pure obvious beauty, though there are some beautiful moments on Bish Bosch (Dimple comes to mind) for something more playful and exploratory. And yet Bish Bosch is still far ahead of most commercial music that has come up since then and been hailed as new or innovative: David Bowie’s The Next Day still adheres to conventional song structure even when he tries to imitate Walker on Heat, while The Knife’s attempts at Shaking The Habitual sound mostly contrived and laborious, as for Kanye West’s Yeezus, the bloated egomania at work can’t mask the poverty of the lyrics while the music itself is rather bland and unimaginative.
To the simple question asked earlier, “What does the work want?” the simple answer is that Scott Walker’s music demands undivided attention from the listener. This is not wallpaper music that can be used as a backdrop for parties or domestic chores, but something else, something closer to contemporary visual arts. It shares with artists like Mike Kelley the same interest for irritating, grotesque or annoying motifs that are unforgettable and force the audience to pay attention, to look, to listen, to try and think. Like most complex artworks it asks questions and points to avenues of explorations, rather than provide the audience with easy answers, with comfort, with delusions. Because its forms are so new it is easy to mock, ridicule, vilify or crudely parody, like most groundbreaking works of art have been. Because the work is so new despite its nearly two decades of existence, it has only found a limited
public... so far. Because it is so innovative yet existing in a context where all sorts of unconventional genres of music are readily available on the Internet, it is in fact on its way to finding an ever expanding audience, as evidenced in the many personal blog posts written about it.
Meanwhile, the audience is waiting. It is waiting for the time when it will meet the trajectory of Scott Walker’s music and finally surrender to it. It is still blind to the realization that the unthinkable has already happened: the very first music that speaks of the 21st century is here.