Oh, god, I’m about to feel old now. There was a time, not too long ago, when Detroit was not officially known as Garage Rock City. Back in those halcyon days of the mid-late ’90s — in the Detroit Rock Export recession between Sponge and Kid Rock — Detroit was affectionately referred to as Space Rock City (with a thriving noise rock enclave, please!). Now, I’m not a big fan of hype-generated marketing monikers either, but this one had that je ne se quois that made me giggle in a good way every time I heard it. It was a time when bands named Fuxa, Medusa Cyclone, Gravitar, Windy & Carl and so many more purveyors of waveforms, drone, experimental ambience and high-flying outness found fertile ground in which to grow. It was also a time when technology shared wavelengths with late-night double-features, overeducation and understimulation. I was just starting to think that I had imagined the whole thing when I was snapped back to reality by the wonderful folks at the United States Postal Service.
Ears of the storm
On my doorstep one sunny afternoon was an unassuming package from Ferndale’s Small Stone Records — adding to the absurdity since it’s a, er, stone’s throw from said doorstep. From the bubble wrap I pulled Tangier, the brand-new, pressing-plant-smelling disc from the above-mentioned Medusa Cyclone (aka Keir McDonald) — the first release from the “band” since 1998’s critically lauded full-length, Mr. Devil. With the aid of drummers Mike Alonso and Robert Wonnacott, guitarists John Nash and Matt Smith, and synth/noise contributions from brother Gavin, McDonald has returned to the musical marketplace in fine form. I won’t go into too many details now, but it’s a lulu of a mindbender of a record. All organic, overdriven psychedelia, repetition and hooks, short-attention-span mantras — an inner monologue for a musical travelogue. Something like that.
That would have been enough to remind me that all was right with the world, but then I got to thinking. A couple weeks ago at the Elbow Room in beautiful downtown Ypsilanti, the Delta Waves headlined a show pimped as “Space Rock City.” Hmm. Delta Waves features former members of Fuxa, I think (or at least its sonic descendents). Delta Waves, coincidentally, have a new long-player out now (the appropriately titled Dream in Real Time) on Dearborn’s Top Quality Rock & Roll record label. Sharing the bill was Quaker Cage (an experimental electro outfit that plays regularly at xhedos Café in Ferndale) and the Rattling Wall Collective from Lansing which, incidentally, should be commended for choosing one of the better names on the musical block. Jump-cut to last Tuesday, when Quaker Cage performed its heady alchemy of electronic and acoustic as part of the Crackle series at CPOP (4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Crackle is a regular evening of irregular sounds — an evening where electronic music and sound artists can stretch out and workshop new ideas, electronic gizmos and swap ideas. And it’s free. Looks like the next one’s happening June 25. Hmmm …
Any port in a Storm
Oh, boy, now it’s coming back to me — it seems Crackle is co-curated by one Persona (né Eric Cook) and time stereo fella Davin Brainard. Now, I had just spent some quality time with two brand new discs — Fencesitter and Splinter — from Persona. This Cook chap played drums in the band Gravitar (which, if you’re paying attention, lived in the noisier neighborhood of Space Rock City, upstairs from time stereo avant-theatrical scrawkers Princess Dragonmom). Anyhoo, the two CDs are the first in Persona’s “Tangle” series and they take a decidedly more ambient, organic, occasionally womblike turn from Persona’s first couple (noisier, glitchy-er) discs Maximal and Uptight. If you visit Persona’s site at www.simulated.net, you can get a taste of the material recorded live at Stormy Records in Dearborn. Which brings us around to … Stormy Records proprietors Windy & Carl have managed to weather a tough music retail market by continuing to feed the musical community in which they live and work. Stormy’s not only the best place in town to pick up experimental/ ambient/electro/avant/improvised sounds in their recorded form, it’s also a regular gathering place for outside sounds in a town with precious few venues that’ll host such niche events. From their patronage of 89.3, WHFR-FM’s recent “Ear Candy” festival to opening their doors to touring bands and artists (and the decidedly rare Windy & Carl live set), the dynamic duo have kept the spark in the dark. Stormy will be playing host on June 24 to the new music series Electronics Checkup which promises mind-bending sounds from artists such as Dr. Gretchen’s Musical Weightlifting Program (aka Slumber Party guitarist Gretchen Gonzalez), flashpapr members Zach Wallace and Ben Bracken and much, much more. Stop by Stormy Records at 22079 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn or call 313-563-8525 for more info.
Ankle deep, mountain high
You know what, I’m not feeling like such a codger anymore. In many ways, Space Rock City (giggle) never went away. In fact, it’s now grown to engulf such younger purveyors of improvised music as the fellas in flashpapr and Wolf Eyes (not to mention touching Venn diagram circles with the post-rock electronic sounds of such acts as Midwest Product and others). And, while the dearth of traditional nonrock venues and the mainstreaming of the DEMF leaves less room for experimental artists, perhaps technology’s democratizing effects married with the DIY ethos can make some wiggle room for far-ranging musical ears.
What you’ve just read only scratches the surface of the underground action, but the point (or part of it) is this: Detroit has always, always, always thrived on the cross-pollination between its music scenes. Techno, space-rock and garage-rock music makers forge connections by artistic necessity while music marketing encourages narrow balkanization. Despite all the international limelight shining on Detroit right now, the best music still comes, in some part, from the fact that we’re viewed from the coasts as a bit of a backwater town. Let’s hope we can keep ourselves from pissing in the musical gene pool. And that’s just about as far as I can torture that particular metaphor. Keep your heads on.
Hey kids, you can learn more about Detroit Space Rock City at your local library or by visiting these: www.xhedos.com; www.masstransfer.net; www.timestereo.com; www.stormyrecords.com; www.topqualityrockandroll.com; www.smallstone.com; whfr.hfcc.net.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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