Posted in SHOFT on Sunday 5th February 2012 at 4:02pm
It's always a little strange when the distant past resurfaces to invade the present. Somewhere in the cupboard behind me are hundreds of cassettes dating from the early 1990s, and buried in those boxes are more than a couple featuring BÃ¼gskÃ¼ll. Back then they were part of a strange musical landscape which I found myself inhabiting after almost accidentally drifting into it via my own cassette-based exploits. I find this period of musical history cropping up quite a bit lately, and it was interesting to hear some of this explored on a recent Song, By Toad podcast. Quite why it should be this music, or why it should happen right now is open to interpretation, but part of it must relate to the accessibility of simple recording technology and the complete indifference of major labels to grassroots music making at present. The interest of big business is elsewhere, seeking quick returns on multimedia tie-ins, and so once again the bedroom musicians, the hard-working local indie acts and the one-man micro-industrialists are left to pursue things on their own terms. No-one is going to get rich from music just now, but culturally we all surely stand to gain? There's a quote attributed to Shrimper mastermind Dennis Callaci from the turn of the last century: "Music is always better when the powers that be are out of touch, and with the internet, the major labels are going to lose control." Once again, Dennis was on the button.
Of course BÃ¼gskÃ¼ll never really went away, despite my years of completely missing the point - and you can find out more about their exploits here. But what about BÃ¼gskÃ¼ll in 2012? Well, in some aspects reassuringly little has changed. Now focused on the originally Portland, Oregon based but now continent-spanning duo of Sean Byrne (Austin, TX) and Aaron Day (Berlin), there is a refreshing directness which harks right back to those days of cassette releases and home recording. Their basic premise remains intact as Byrne's often delicate, heartfelt nearly-folk songs collide with scraps of recovered sound, simmer in tumults of generated noise and are steeped in analogue hiss and crackle. However, listening back to some of those early cassettes on Shrimper and Eldest Son there has certainly been a distinct shift in fidelity, and a move away from the way songs from those early recordings would dissolve frustratingly but rather beautifully into fuzzy, noisy oblivion as recording artefacts and format limitations became features of the soundscape. I'm not sure I always really understood what the band were aiming for back then - but perhaps one's musical palette matures in the same way our tastes in cuisine develop, and listening now - particularly in the context of "Hidden Mountain", I've completely fallen for the approach all over again.
This blog isn't idly named, and I listened to this for the first time speeding east and watching the sun come up over a frozen landscape. It was an oddly and absolutely fitting way to experience this release. Opening with an extended instrumental introduction in "Old Town", the title track which follows is a curious epic of pastoral Americana, which I can't help but keep replaying in my mind. It's a simple proposition - a delicate guitar melody is plucked out against an atmospheric backdrop of stuttering electronics and layers of droning noise. Perhaps the key to how this gentle, but persistent song manages to worm its way into my consciousness is the new found discipline. The noise never threatens to overwhelm Byrne's calm if melancholy vocal. Continuing in a similarly laconic mood, "The Lights" is driven by a simple but effective vocal melody, which leads a drone of keyboard and the ever present understated, folk-inflected guitar. Then, rather unexpectedly a maudlin brass section joins briefly, lifting the song into new territory before it departs. It's a breathtakingly sudden interlude. The pace picks up a little on "Wolves" but it becomes clear that this isn't by any means going to provide lighter moments. The guitar line here repeats hypnotically and and mantra-like while Byrne manages to sound even more desolate than on the slower-paced opening tracks. Somewhere here I realise that this is just what I wanted from the last Bill Callahan record, but found I lost amongst all it's extravagant complications and overly clever staging.
The elaborately named "Early Winter, Hoping for an Early Spring" appears to have taken a leaf from The Twilight Sad approach to song nomenclature. Not unlike their often bleak and mournful recordings it too has a strange metallic edge to its melody, before startling multi-tracked and distorted electronic vocals eerily join in. The curious cyber-folk saga which follows is unsettling in it's oddly warped background sounds, but remains achingly, unerringly beautiful to hear. On "Lost Cause" Byrne pitches a more personal first-person lyric, together with a whirling electronic shimmer. His voice is at its most vulnerably and sonorous finest here, as he quietly intones the regret-laced verses. Finally "To Be The Head and Not The Tail" closes the record on a comparatively and defiantly upbeat note with what is perhaps the most immediately accessible track on the record. On the surface, it seems to be a distant cousin of George Harrison's "Isnt It A Pity?", but rebuilt from shards of odd sound effects, multi-layered vocals and a steady guitar strum. The lyrics appear to concern natural selection, with an unnamed creature slinking around ensuring it's own survival. Then, the record's only electric guitar solo enters - a majestically fuzzed-up delight of an outburst, if sadly all too brief. Taking a cue from this sudden squall the track builds towards its ending with a cacophony of whirling machinery, and appropriately drenched in hiss. In lots of ways, writing about music has brought me full circle, and to be listening to BÃ¼gskÃ¼ll now connects me right back to some of my earliest experiments and projects, some of which have themselves been strangely re-energised of late. It's pretty certain in fact, that if some of those earliest cassette recordings hadn't found their way into my enthusiastic but clumsy hands back then, I'd be listening to some very different music right now. The lyrics and the music here both seem to deal throughout with a sense of pent-up natural process, and asserting some sort of understanding on a complicated world. Overall, this is a masterpiece of wonderfully intelligent songwriting, barely controlled noise, and simple but beautiful construction.
This release manages also to take the recent debate about legacy formats to a curious new conclusion - being released simultaneously on three labels, each handling a different format. The CD is available from Scratch, whilst Shrimper are providing an outlet for the cassette. Perhaps most exciting though is the vinyl release on Almost Halloween Time, each of the 110 limited copies coming with a painstakingly hand-drawn sleeve - an example being seen above - by the remarkably talented label owner, Luigi Falagario.
BÃ¼gskÃ¼ll - Lost Cause
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.