AUX: Optical Atlas Review

April 16, 2006
Optical Atlas music blog

AUX: Experimental Sound from Athens, GA
By Jeff Kuykendall

The full story is this: in late 1999, on their last tour as a stable unit, Olivia Tremor Control came to the Crocodile Cafe with The Minders in tow. The audience was a mix of what was then a typical Elephant 6 fan-black-rimmed glasses, staring fixedly at the band without moving or smiling or anything-and the other sort that would fill out any venue playing live music in downtown Seattle on a given night-screaming at the band, groping their girlfriend, attempting to high-five the OTC fans who were only glaring back at them.

I had brought a couple of things for the Olivias to sign, but realized how uncool that was when I arrived, and didn’t say anything to them. It was a good show. Don’t get me wrong. The 8 Track Gorilla was there, temporarily leaving the merch desk to interrupt the Olivias midway through the performance; “Hey, look everyone, it’s the 8 Track Gorilla,” Will deadpanned while the man in the gorilla suit jumped around onstage before an audience that was split straight down the middle: the Elephant 6 fans staring up bewilderedly, somewhat annoyed; the drunken frat boys screaming out, “Woooo! Ape-track gorilla! Woooo!” There were a few moments when the band needed to stall for time while Bill replaced a string or an impromptu sound check was performed, so Scott would lead everyone in a group meditation that involved pretending to be a tree. And at a few points they merged tracks with a little bit of avant-garde noise, or allowed a song to build deliberately slowly-for example, into “Grass Canons,” which would begin properly whenever they damn well pleased. But then that second contingent in the audience got a little antsy, and even some of the Elephant 6 fans began to chat with each other, and someone very drunk screamed in my ear, “Play songs!” Scott looked terrified but smiled at the other guys onstage and said, “Okay!” And then the Olivias started jumping fences again.

There’s another divide within the Elephant 6 community: those who like the pop and those who like the experimentation. But the Olivia Tremor Control always straddled that fence, most noticeably in the album they were promoting on that tour, Black Foliage, which would sway from Brian Wilson harmonies to John Cage sonic hiccupping in the space of a second. I was in grad school at the time and one of my fellow classmates, who was also a temporary member of Unbunny, was there; in the intermission he said, “These guys are good, but I wish they’d stick to the songs. Everything else, it’s like-Sonic Youth has already been there, you know?”
That’s the first thing I think of when I think of experimental music. The other thing is a long argument on the E6 Townhall a couple of years ago when Everything Is was re-released and “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch” became a hot topic again. There were Neutral Milk Hotel fans who just couldn’t stand to listen to it, and thought it was shit. I tried to make the argument that “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch” was brilliant because it created a real alternate universe, a place you could live, an expansive space. Or something. I also just thought it was fun. But some folks just really wanted Jeff Mangum to stick with the tunes (by footnote, “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch” actually pre-dates most everything else Neutral Milk Hotel). Major Organ and the Adding Machine is a good litmus test for the NMH fans, as well.

I’m keeping this on an Elephant 6 track because this is what the website’s about, but I should also note the obvious: AUX: Experimental Sound from Athens, GA is not an Elephant 6 compilation. It limits itself to Athens musicians, but look who’s here: W. Cullen Hart (of Olivia Tremor Control and Circulatory System), Korena Pang (Jefferson), Heather McIntosh (of The Instruments), Hannah Jones (of Circulatory System), and Chronicle Ape and the New Sound (if I’m not mistaken, of direct simian relation to the 8 Track Gorilla). The other names, such as Pelican City and Noisettes, should be familiar to those who’ve been following Athens music for a while.

I listened to this CD a couple of times this morning, and the tracks mesh with one another so well that I was astonished it was an experimental compilation. Usually the listening experience is a bit more (deliberately) jarring on these kinds of CDs. The biggest blip comes from Korena Pang’s “excerpt from Dogbirthed Brother in Eggsack Delicious,” which is a 2:22 collection of belches, snoring, and someone with an English accent describing a wizard (I can only think of Harry Potter, try as I might to transport myself). I like it, but if you’re new to this kind of thing, it’s the most trying track on the record. I like Will Cullen Hart’s “Dimensional Snail and Friend” a lot better (it actually succeeds in presenting the subterranean feeling which I never got from Hart’s Silver CD, which actually was recorded underground), and the thing is, it’s seamlessly sequenced right after the Korena Pang track. The whole CD is seamless, from the liftoff one feels after Paul Thomas’ “Hope” and Chronicle Ape’s “Antique #1” all the way through the settling descent of “The Breathing Table” by Manipulated Sound Source.

It’s a compilation, so by definition it’s hit and miss, but I found this a much more pleasing listen than Athfest 10, the other Athens compilation released last week. That, a more typical comp, scrambles in a dozen different directions at once, satisfying no one. This tunnels its way in a singular direction, as all the artists are interested in discovering new sounds, juxtapositions, and experiences. Some succeed more than others. I particularly liked Hannah Jones’ “Bells for Electronic Owl,” the title of which seems apt, and Sarah Black’s “Music Box,” which begins like a broken version of its namesake before departing through another dimension.

At $30, it’s pricey, and when you get it, you become apprehensive that it will fall apart within the week. (The cardboard CD cases were assembled by hand, which is why there’s only 200 being printed, and why it’s $30.) But it fulfills my pretentious-sounding requirement for satisfying experimental music: it creates a space for you to explore, and it engages you. If you know what side of the fence you fall on, you know whether or not you need this CD.