With terrible regularity for the three years between 2017 and 2019, a murky troupe of Philadelphia-area artists known as The Shiver Bones Group released an annual Halloween Story Time record. Containing short stories narrated like macabre radio plays, backed with snatches of music, sound effects and all sorts of ghostly interventions, the Horror Too Horrible To Hear series came across like The Residents taking over the Night Vale podcast with typically warped readings of Edgar Allen Poe and M. R. James.
The Shiver Bones Group rose out of of a high school ‘zine called Sewage Waste Disposal Unit formed by three students – Michael LaLaLa, Matthew Kirscht and Bryan Michael. LaLaLa is an artist and purveyor of quirky electronic pop, while Kirscht has established himself as a collectible Halloween artist and illustrator for TOPPS’ enduring Garbage Pail Kids, whose gross characterisations can be imagined in the stories that The Shiver Bones Group released as Horror Too Horrible To Hear. Bryan Michael is a Poe enthusiast and one third of Philadelphia electronic music unit Alka, and was responsible for the FX and music on the three releases put out by the group, using a vintage 1984 E-Mu Emulator II. Other collaborators, each with the types of circumspect names one might find in the graveyard of The Haunted Mansion, drift in and out for each release like tortured wraiths.
Across the three releases you hear stories about killer ghost dogs, student-murdering ghoulish visitors, why you should never drape your arm over the bedside while sleeping, devil turkeys (yes, devil turkeys), rabid pumpkins containing chomping insectoid teeth and romantic dinners by patrons with restlessly haunted heads, each one backed with schlocky sounds and creepy fairground music for ice-cold crypts. These stories suggest vivid, terrifying imaginations filled with buckets of corn syrup blood and the most gruesomely illustrated, yet comedic, demons.
Sadly, a fourth Horror Too Horrible To Hear release was thwarted by LaLaLa, Kirscht and Michael being unable to convene to record a new instalment. For this year, you’ll just have to make do with Kirscht’s animated Bogey Wail short and his and LaLaLa’s in-demand Halloween postcards. Alka, meanwhile, have just dropped their new album Regarding The Auguries, a terrifying record that’s as horrible as these grim tales for reflecting back our realities rather than fiction.
Turn the lights down, light a jack-o’-lantern and settle into the sound of Horror Too Horrible To Hear at Bandcamp… if you dare.
Horror Too Horrible To Hear, Horrible Too Horrible To Hear Two and Horrible Three Horrible To Hear were released October 13 2017, October 13 2018 and October 17 2019 respectively. shiverbones.comshiverbones.bandcamp.com
Philadelphia-based Alka release their fourth album, the portentously-titled Regarding The Auguries, on October 9th through Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords. Originally a solo IDM project of Bryan Michael, Alka is now reconfigured as a trio with visual artist Erika Tele and likeminded electronic producer Todd Steponick, a line-up familiar from their pre-lockdown live shows.
“I think we’ve always been working towards being a more cohesive unit,” explains Bryan. “We like calling ourselves a unit – I mean, are you really a ‘band’ in the electronic music world? When I started the Alka project it was really just me and a laptop, and while I had fun with that, eventually I got bored with the process. Recording this album was really collaborative – I might start an idea; I’ll send it to Todd; he’ll send it to Erika; they’ll send it back, I’ll hear something else and we do this back and forth until we get a sound we like. It’s spontaneous, but it was done in a kind of slow motion.”
We spoke to Bryan, Erika and Todd about some of their favourite albums and major influences. For more information on Regarding The Auguries, head to veryrecords.com.
Xymox – Twist Of Shadows Wing Records / Polydor, 1989
I can admire a band wanting to do something different. After two solid albums on 4AD, Clan Of Xymox was ready for a change. Perhaps a nod towards making their music more accessible, Twist Of Shadows’ production values are slightly different than their former releases whilst retaining the band’s signature gloomy vibe. Having dropped the ‘Clan Of’ from their moniker, switching from 4AD to Polygram, and partnering with fellow Dutch synthesist Bert Barten for songwriting and production efforts, Xymox went on to create what is quite possibly the best synthpop record of the late 80s. Decidedly less goth and more melancholic synthpop, Twist of Shadows is an underrated classic filled with beautifully dark vibes. The idea that something could be this introspective yet still synthpop is something I carry with me in our music as Alka. – Bryan
Newcleus – Space Is The Place Sunnyview, 1985
Space Is The Place, Newcleus’s second full-length album from 1985, following up from their first album Jam On Revenge in 1984, is soulful, melancholic, contemplative and upbeat at the same time. It brings out so much of the personality of the band, their originality and such a futuristic space narrative from the heydays of hip -hop. It’s so out of this world that it’s really a mystery as to why they are so much lesser known than their flashier hip-hop counterparts. Electro-funk took much more of an underground passage that slid beneath the louder mainstream rap and hip-hop, yet this band was creating imaginative, innovative live electronic funk! The first album Jam On Revenge, has the hit b-boy anthem ‘Jam On It’ (with an amazing video to go along), but this second album really resonates in my soul and inspired me as a person and artist. I have so much respect for this band, and am so humbled to share the airwaves with Cozmo D and his son DJ Dogtrane on Global Funk Radio. The composition, performance, writing and concept makes it a magical masterpiece – definitely one to experience. Come on and take a ride! – Erika
Coil – Horse Rotorvator Force & Form / K.422, 1986
After hearing ‘Ostia’ in the 80s on my local college radio station and future alma mater (WKDU Drexel) I was instantly enchanted with Coil. The cascading and meandering Fairlight guitar sample sounding like it was programmed by some broken medieval robot, punctuated by haunting strings and Jhonn Balance’s melancholic delivery. “There’s honey in the hollows and the contours of the body…” It’s just perfect. I loved how it was this deeply sad song yet somehow upbeat, clocking in at 126 BPM. The entire album is genuinely a masterpiece and an enigma of its time having been recorded on a hired Fairlight and Emulator II in 1986, both extremely expensive bits of gear for English underground musicians. I guess what I pull from Coil’s influence is their diversity in sound – one moment brooding drones, the next acid house, all while never losing the mystery. – Bryan
Julia Kent – Asperities The Leaf Label Ltd, 2015
There is no way to put on happy music in a century like this and not feel like you’re somehow lying to yourself. More vulnerability and confrontation with the uncomfortable than anything like an escape, Julia Kent‘s cello work resonates with nuanced reflection navigating real-world hardships. Similar to the way glaciers once steadily scraped landscapes bare and carved mountains and vales, what remains is that which may have had more integrity than the friction could take. Strengths, and a handle on the centre, but at a cost. Something of this mammoth, austere process feels inherent in the enduring heart of the artist working the cello, and the strewn grey boulders of Asperities is the evidence. In early Autumn 2020, its somber story quietly commiserates, like an intricate monument to hard-earned survival left to be found by others lost and struggling in the bleak grey stretches of time. Mysterious electronics occasionally emerge and remind of only more uncertainties. Anxieties over accelerating existential threats weigh and grind. Powerlessness and atomization frustrate through a pandemic under narcissistic mismanagement. Default anxieties fester in the mix. Asperities feels like it takes in all of these things, scores a harrowing way through, and consoles as we wait to heal. – Todd
Plaid – P-brane EP Warp, 2002
Something about Plaid‘s programming always intrigues and inspires me. It’s so intensely intricate and sonically rich but it’s the creeping melodies and chords changes that make my brain shiver with delight. It’s impossible to choose one album as their best but this particular EP was the sole reason for me to quit traditional guitar-based bands and return to my electronic roots with Alka once and for all. With shimmering almost new-age arps and delicate pads juxtaposed with complex, ever-evolving, and at times quite heavy rhythms, Plaid are at once eminently danceable and yet completely brooding and thoughtful. I challenge you to listen to the ending of ‘Coats’ and not get chills. – Bryan
Regarding The Auguries by Alka is released October 9 2020 by VeryRecords.
Gareth Jones is no stranger to helping artists shape astounding music. Having produced and mixed acts such as Depeche Mode, Erasure, Einstürzende Neubauten, MGMT, Can, Neu!, and beyond, it is safe to say Gareth knows his way around the studio. It is one thing to assist artists in honing their craft, however, and another to create original work, especially in a void of individualism.
With ElectroGenetic, his first solo release, Gareth has successfully managed to create a sonically-rich aural snapshot of his recent journey through loss. Although deeply personal, the emotions Gareth has managed to capture are immediately relatable as they are being told – not simply as one person’s reaction to the travails of life – but through the lens of an all-encompassing spiritualism.
ElectroGenetic sounds as the title suggests: a perfect blend of deep, earthly ambience accented with rich cosmic synth work. The listening experience of the nine-track ElectroGenetic (a seamless and flowing 40 minutes of morphing sounds) is a continuous journey one hardly knows they are on – much like life. Buzzing insect-like sferics hover over fields of sound in ‘Goonhilly’, low-pass filtered rhythms fluctuate atop ethereal beds in ‘Farewell’, choral swaths emerge from the depths as synth arps punctuate the darkness in ‘Trinity’, and effected spoken words reinforce a spiritual element throughout.
Gareth intricately blends raw modular electronics with floating atmospheres and the result is remarkably gentle and expressively emotive. There is a distance in the sound like someone observing a storm from afar. One is reminded of the pastoral ambience of O Yuki Conjugate’s Undercurrents (Into Dark Water) or the dream-laced techno of Air Liquide’s The Increased Difficulty Of Concentration.
With ElectroGenetic, Gareth presents a momentary journey through life – one fraught with sadness but never losing sight of a grand spiritual order to the perceived chaos. A journey immaculately reinterpreted through electronics, field recordings, poetry, and dreamcatchers. Gareth has made a deeply personal album based on a deeply personal journey but one that is relatable to all of us as it is presented by someone who is not only an expert in the field of sound manipulation but also cognisant of when it is best to abandon ego and let higher consciousness control the ebb and flow. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which inspired the final piece ‘Alone Together’, offers a touching summation of the album:
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.”
What separates the natural world from that of synthetic recreations? Is it not just all vibrating molecules arranged into rhythmic patterns? Polymer, a Greek derived word meaning ‘many parts’ and used to describe both natural and synthetic macromolecules composed of repeating patterns of monomer molecules, accurately describes Plaid’s latest release.
Similarly to the ages-long process of specific natural elements converging with each other to form sparkling jewels, Plaid have been synthetically honing their craft since 1991 – longer if you include Ed Handley and Andy Turner’s start with Black Dog Productions. The result has been a slow, subtle evolution of electronic aural alchemy sounding unlike any of their peers at Warp and beyond. Plaid have long been masters of crystalline, interlocking comb-filtered percussive FM synthesis forming almost euphoric (and sometimes melancholic) melodies, and Polymer has plenty of that.
Where Polymer stands apart from Plaid’s recent past releases is that it doesn’t feel just like a loose collection of tracks, but rather a tightly-bonded, cohesive yet diverse album informed by Ed and Andy’s manifesto for the project: “Polyphony, Pollution, and Politics”. Their many years of experimentation in the Plaid laboratory have enabled them the ability to create dazzlingly refined and complex tracks where everything melds perfectly while still pushing the boundaries of contemporary electronic music.
The opening ‘Meds Fade’ is something new from Plaid, a sci-fi, almost darkwave track which buzzes and drifts over alien landscapes sounding like the soundtrack Zaxxon never had. It feels like the chaotic and polluted external route one must take to get to the inner sanctum of the Polymer experience. Once there, we are greeted by the lab experiment that is ‘Los’, complete with cyclical machine percussion and bubbling 303 (a nod to this album having the prestigious Warp catalogue number 303, perhaps?). Later, ‘Ops’ combines a natural human vocal element to provide an effective rhythmic phrase punctuated by percussive syncopated vibrating plucks. One is constantly impressed with the spatial dimension Plaid is able to produce in their music and it is especially apparent on Polymer.
Further along the experience, ‘Drowned Sea’ – a dark, brooding Coil-like track with hauntingly subtle pitched and warped vocal samples – reminds us that with great modern advances oftentimes comes the failings of humankind’s ability to properly deal with the remains of their creations. Informing this particular track are the ever-present micro-plastics in the food chain and massive plastic tides. It is no wonder that plastic debris was recently found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which, at 11km, is deeper than the tallest mountain is high. On a more optimistic tone, albeit a deeply melancholic one, ‘Dancers’ lifts one up as only Plaid can do with their signature melodic chimes and ethereal pads floating over skittering fragile drums. With light there is dark and ‘Recall’ brings thing back around with the sounds of glitched and sputtering synths akin to malfunctioning lab equipment.
However synthetic the title Polymer hints at, and with Plaid’s music in general, they are no strangers to incorporating natural elements seamlessly, if not subtly, into their array. Polymer follows other plaid albums with the addition of guitar and other acoustic staccato sounds which can be found in the likes of ‘The Pale Moth’, ‘Nurula’, and ‘Crown Shy’, satisfying perhaps their long-standing threat of recording an entire album with nothing other than a slowly deconstructed guitar. Nothing in Plaid’s discography comes quite as close to the full-on acoustic mark, however, as Polymer’s closing track does. ‘Praze’ – an old word for meadow – is a strikingly enchanted mediaeval bard-esque strain that relates to Britain’s disappearing wildflower meadows. In ‘Praze’s final melancholy there is also hope, not unlike stepping into a field after the daunting journey which began with ‘Meds Fade’, travelling through Plaid’s polymerisation laboratory experience until finally closing on a sole harpsichord.
Polymer is a wonderful and emotionally diverse experience that manages to retain the playfulness of past releases such as Rest Proof Clockwork to the darkness of Greedy Baby. As the word implies, Polymer is a complete album made of many parts, made of songs of many parts, made of machines and instruments of many parts, and so on down to the realm of mere vibration. For even in the realm of electronics and their perceived artificial means of creation, a most natural experience can be created – one known as music.
Polymer by Plaid is out now on Warp.
Words: Bryan Michael. Bryan Michael is a founding member of Philadelphia electronics unit Alka. Listen to Alka’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal at Spotify.