Tuesday, March 4, 2008

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Snauses & Mallards/de Snaunted Haus
The Wire, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Most experimental electronica is anal-retentive---every glitch and click prissily placed just-so. In contrast, Blectum from Blechdom are "anal-expulsive" (to borrow a coinage from their San Francisco comrade Lesser). But this female duo, who lurk behind the aliases Kevin and Blevin, aren't just sonic messthetes: they're positively obsessed with all things faecal. The sleeve of their Bad Music and Buttprints EP featured the imprint of their own hindquarters, and toilet humour is upfront in their name: Blectum echoes "rectum", while "blech" is the gagging sound American kids make to indicate revulsion. The music itself often sounds onomatopeiac, its squits and ploops practically demanding titles like "Audio Stool" and "Shithole".

Those two come from Blectum's debut EP Snauses and Mallards, whose nine tracks make up the first third of this CD. Vaulting past the Ars Electronica prize-winning album The Messy Jesse Fiesta, the rest of the record takes in all fifteen tracks from De Snaunted Haus, their most recent release. Here, Blectum usher us into an Ubu Roi-like fantasia of grotesque scatology and depraved sexuality, populated by unwholesome critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. Snauses are vermin who live in toilets and ambush people at their most vulnerable, biting their toes off. They have a single "bitch-hole" through which they eat, excrete, breathe, fornicate and reproduce. Then there's Mallard, a scientist duck who experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverted sexual research.

The macabre adventures of this bestiary---seemingly hallucinated by a ketamine fiend channel-surfing between wildlife documentaries, porn, and a Cronenburg movie---are recounted via between-track micro-dramas, performed by Kevin and Blevin in exaggeratedly thespian tones and sometimes fed through vocal treatments for added delirium. Breaking techno's taboo about using the human voice (one track is pointedly titled "In case you forgot, we talked on this record"), Blectum shatter glitchtronica's cool with goofy girlish glee and Python-esque daftness. But the effect goes well beyond Ministry of Silly Voices, frequently becoming genuinely unnerving and creepy.

The earliest Blectum performances took place at clandestine raves thrown by the duo in the basement beneath the concert hall of Mills, the Oakland, California music college where Kevin & Blevin are students, and whose illustrious alumni include Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnik. Blectum music reflects this high/low incongruity: toytown tekno riffs, shredded jungle breaks, and bursts of house's hi-hat/kick rhythm, are meshed disjointedly with musique concrete-style smears and scumbles of sound-goo. Tracks like "Bastard Child" recall 4 Hero at their 1993 darkcore peak: vocal samples like melted candles, loops that unspool like glaucous intestines, angelic-demonic shriek-riffs. It's a sort of devolved rave music, suggesting the alternate route London pirate radio might have taken if jungle had never solidified as a genre, and instead the first Generation E kept on taking the bad medicine while the music got iller and iller. Sheer insanitary insanity, Haus De Snaus is an infirmary of sound, teeming with sickly melodies, fever-dream apparitions, degenerative nerve-disorder twitches, and wizened noises as perturbing as the plates in a medical text-book.

Blectum use a lot of dinky-sounding mechanistic melody-riffs suggestive of music-boxes, carny-shows, or player-pianos (Nancarrow is one of their favorites). It's a flavour that evokes the uncanny aura of automata and clockwork toys, making me flash on the the sharp-fanged demon-dolls in Barbarella, or the kitsch animatronic companions built by the prematurely aged android-designer in Blade Runner. Electronic musicians usually evoke childhood's idyllic-ness--Mouse On Mars's ice cream van tinkles, Boards of Canada's faded photo poignancy. Blectum, though, plug into the imp-of-the-perverse side of pre-pubescence: the sheer appetite for destruction that inspires surreal acts of vandalism or grossness, like smearing dogshit over the swings and slides at the local playground. The between-song skits recall the comic play-lets you might have tape-recorded as kids, complete with giggles and muffed lines. It's revealing that the only word for this kind of mischief and humour we have is gender-specific: puerile. Yet Blectum's scatomania seems somehow distinctly female, perhaps tapping into the same energies of body-disgust and self-abjection that fuels extreme practices like bulimia. If the girlfriend in Devo's "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')" ever got to tell her story, this music might be her riposte.

Probably an inspired aberration, Blectum nonetheless strike me in potential at least as harbingers of a sort of riot grrrl for electronica. With their private jokes, lo-fi approach, and brattiness, they're a bit like Huggy Bear if they'd been influenced by early Prodigy rather than early Pastels. More than anywhere in electronic music, they probably belong to the lineage of outsider rock: The Shaggs, the Residents ("Going Postal" could be straight off The Commercial Album), Royal Trux's ultra-primitivist Twin Infinitives.

In this art brut spirit (and their cover art does recall the compulsive doodles of insane artists like Wolfli), this CD closes with "Bad Music", one of two previously unreleased tracks. A Christopher Cross-like ballad, just piano and erratic vocals, "Bad Music" is genuinely awful. But it does serve as a Blectum manifesto, expressing both their accept-yourself ethos (like riot grrrl, they're anti-cool, pro-nerd) and their willingness to sample absolutely anything ("Right Time Right Place" trumps V/Vm by using the ghastly flute-riff from Men At Work's "Down Under").

"Good music," almost by definition, can only confirm and conform to established notions of quality and distinction; besides, there's simply way too much fine music in the world already. "Bad music," though, still has the capacity to surprise and delight, through its deformity or simple failure to reach its own aspirations. It's also true that pathbreaking genres (like darkside jungle in '93) often initially sound plain wrong. Self-consciously walking the diagonal between beauty and ugliness, art and trash, is a difficult act, but Blectum have pulled it off. Sadly, this CD might be the duo's final release, as the partnership, always volatile, is now in trial separation. But here's hoping Kevin & Blevin make up, and give us more of their jolie laide genius.

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Fishin' in Front of People
KEVIN BLECHDOM, The Inside Story
KEVIN BLECHDOM, Bitches Without Britches
Village Voice, June 26-July 2, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

Experimental electronic producers love to talk about incorporating mistakes and digital dysfunction into their music. Listen to their records, though, and it's hard to imagine anything less messy: Pristine and prissy precision rules, with every last glitch and blerkkkpt fastidiously placed just so. But where 99.7 percent of electronica is paradoxically anal yet sterile, Blectum from Blechdom are fecal and fecund. Not only is this female duo's music full of loose ends and soiled sounds, but like some transgender IDM version of Beavis and Butthead, they're obsessed with all things abject and icky. Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum used paint and their own posteriors to personalize the sleeves of the early Blectum EP Bad Music and Buttprints, while the mini-album De Snaunted Haus relates the unsavory adventures of critters called snauses: toilet-lurking vermin who scuttle out to bite off people's toes. There's also a character called Mallard, a depraved scientist who like some cross between Donald Duck and Mengele biologically engineers snauses with extra orifices for . . . oh, I'll spare you the grody details. Suffice to say, The Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry it ain't.

The first time I heard De Snaunted Haus, I immediately thought of the movie Heavenly Creatures, the true story of a pair of excessively imaginative schoolgirls whose private fantasy world becomes so absorbing that it snowballs into shared psychosis. According to the duo, the snause stories started as a private joke that took on a monstrous life of its own. Likewise Blectum's music seems peopled with mangled and misshapen life-forms: mutants spawned in the audio lab, gargoyle gurgles as horribly compelling as the plates of growths and goiters in a medical deformities textbook. Sounding at times like the Residents gone rave, Blectum have coined one of the most idiosyncratic and enthralling sonic vocabularies in the vastly oversubscribed realm of left-field electronica.

An album of live material, Fishin' in Front of People (Pthalo) mostly documents the early Blectum phase before De Snaunted HauS's between-track skits and mini-plays. So there's less macabre whimsy and fewer silly voices to distract you from the experimentation (Kevin and Blevin are actually students at Mills College in Oakland, California, through whose portals such avant-icons as Morton Subotnik and Pauline Oliveros have passed). Shunning MIDI and sequencing software, Blectum hand-trigger their loops and beats, creating a disjointed anti-seamlessness that's real funky, albeit in a lurching, three-legged sort of way. They like textures that feel tacky to the ear's touch, tallow-waxy like intestines moistly unspooling, and they're big into vocal science, warping some unnamed diva's a cappella funhouse-style across the octaves on a sampling keyboard.

All this creative alchemy is based in the duo's passionate, rather volatile friendship. Right now Blectum from Blechdom are in a weird possibly-split-up, probably-gonna-reform limbo. In the meantime, there's a welter of solo activity. Picking up from the duo's love of dinky/plinky music-box-style melody-riffs, Kevin Blechdom's three-inch CD The Inside Story (Tigerbeat6) offers nine player-piano-like miniatures, ranging from charming clockwork naïveté to carny-show grotesquerie. Conversely, her imminent solo album for Chicks on Speed's label takes the vocal element and taboo-tweaking of Haus De Snaus to the dizzy limit. Up against Inside Story's instrumentals, Bitches Without Britches (those Blechdom gals sure love alliteration and internal rhyme) comes off a mad-catchy song-fest: Kevin's high reedy voice fluting over ornate-but-thin synthesized orchestration and dementedly overdriven drum machine. Imagine some three-way collision of Tori Amos, the Frogs, and Stephen Merritt, operating with a studio outlay restricted to under $100. Kevin is clearly the Blechgirl most infatuated with the idea of transgressive bad taste, and on Bitches she goes for the Yiddish triple whammy: schlock, kitsch, chintz. Covering Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" is a low blow indeed, but pales next to her paean to boyfriend kid606 a/k/a "Mr. Miguel." Trilling like some helium-huffing composite of Enya and Kiki Dee, Kevin rhymes "heart" with "private part" and sings choice verses like "Mr. Miguel/we're doing just swell/and it's only getting better/because my pussy's feeling wetter."

Where Kevin goes for full-frontal crudity, Blevin has a more oblique slant on the basic Blechdom sensation of things-not-quite-right-here. The cover of her superb solo album Talon Slalom (Deluxe) captures this, with its cheesy-yet-creepy painting of a woman wearing fur-trimmed ski goggles. Expanded to its full dimensions on the inner sleeve, the image is revealed as a found object: a bizarrely ill-conceived optician ad depicting an eagle's giant talons gripping the skier's skull (the bird of prey, seemingly confused by the fur, has swooped down on what it thinks is a tasty mountain hare). Things are no less awry on the CD itself. "Rockitship Long Light Years" samples an awesome female voice (Wanda Jackson gone lounge?) belting out what might once have been a raunchy double entendre: "come and take a trip/in my rocketship." The clanking, creaking groove makes me think of a coal-powered spacecraft from some steampunk parallel universe, puffing and straining as it struggles to reach escape velocity.

"The Way the Cookie Crumbles Straight From the Horse's Mouth" is the first of no fewer than four songs dedicated to boyfriend/musician J. Lesser. Chopping, time-stretching, and generally fucking with some classic blissed-out house-diva samples—phrases like "my vision is clear" and "feeling good" — Blevin makes the sort of sonic Valentine's Day card that a glitch-fiend like Lesser would appreciate. Like "Mr. Miguel," it's touchingly indicative of Blectum from Blechdom's distance from the IDM fraternity that they'd wear their hearts on their sleeves (or discs) so flagrantly.

published under the headline: Endangered Feces
and with the subhead
Blectum From Blechdom: They Came, They Saw, They Rectum
--all praise editor Chuck Eddy!

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