Caught In a Funk: New Local Releases From the Underground

Sepehr.  (Photo: Mariah Tiffany)

Signal From Noise is a bimonthly column from DJ, experimental music aficionado and writer Chris Zaldua. This week he brings us a roundup of new and notable records from Bay Area artists. 

Marbled Eye, 'EP II'

Melters Records; Bandcamp

Since discovering their first cassette tape last year, I have been blathering on about Oakland's Marbled Eye to anyone and everyone who will listen.

I may exist in a bubble, musically and otherwise, but it's difficult for me to imagine anyone hearing Marbled Eye's music for the first time and not falling in love as quickly as I did. Marbled Eye write post-punk, in the long (and perhaps clichéd) shadow of Joy Division and co., but they do so with such a natural ear for catchy, poppy flair that even listeners who are not heavily tattooed nor clad in black will find themselves enthralled: rarely is post-punk simply so much fun to listen to.

None of EP II’s four songs run longer than four minutes, which means it's over in a flash, just like their cassette. And just like that tape, EP II works best listened to on repeat. Repetition makes apparent an underlying tension in Marbled Eye's music, in which the staccato, rigid, almost Germanic rhythms of the bass and drums (punctuated by the delightfully monotone vocals) are set against searing guitar work whose emotional resonance belies the band's punk roots. Punk as this music is, it's anything but mindless.

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If Marbled Eye put together a debut album as fine as these two EPs, it's not hard to imagine this band's star rising well beyond the Bay Area. If you aren't already clued in, now is the time.


Sepehr, 'Step One'

Black Catalogue

Sepehr Alimagham — or just Sepehr for short, pronounced seh-PAIR — has for many years commandeered San Francisco dancefloors, DJing Detroit techno and raw acid house with zealous, infectious fervor. Step One is his first vinyl record, courtesy of Detroit label Black Catalogue, and it proves that his years of experience DJing have taught him well.

Both the record's tunes are comprised of potent, bassy kick drums, a few spare melodic elements, and barely-there vocal samples, just legible enough to register as speech but not so much that they reveal themselves — and little else. (Fine techno can often be reduced to a single maxim: Less is more.) "Caught in a Funk" winds itself around ascending synth chords while its vocal waxes lyrical about the Roland TR-909 and Juno-106, a drum machine and synthesizer indispensable to techno producers; "Step One" features a squirrely acid riff, the kind that gets stuck deep in your head.

Acid house specialist D'Marc Cantu's remix of "Step One" amps up the original's intensity, but loses some of its elemental magic in the process. Nevertheless, Sepehr's two original works sell this record on their own.


Jim Haynes, 'Electrical Injuries'

Aussenraum; digital edition forthcoming via Bandcamp

Rarely does an artist's personal statement sum up their work as accurately as Jim Haynes': "I rust things."

For decades, Haynes has operated within, and contributed to, the nebula of Bay Area experimental music. True to his statement, his work is bound by entropy, capturing the sound (or the sight, or the feel) of decay across various media. Morbid as that may sound, Haynes discovers creation within destruction, and builds entire worlds within things falling apart.

Electrical Injuries is Haynes' latest LP, and like all of his musical works, it is entirely built on texture, atmosphere, and the manipulation (and corrosion) of raw sound. (A cursory reading of the album's press release, and its passage titles, suggest that ice and electricity are primary sound sources.) Unlike many of his previous works, which could understatedly be described as "calm," Electrical Injuries is intense, thrilling, and caustic. But it speaks to Haynes' maturity as an artist that not once does it suffer the fate which befalls most noise records: a tendency towards juvenility, towards aggression for aggression's sake, and a complete disregard for subtlety.

You'll find none of that here. Electrical Injuries is fierce and uncompromising, but it's judicious in its furor; Haynes knows precisely when to pull the throttle and when to ease up. In fact, Electrical Injuries reminds me of another American artist whose whispered susurrus and blistered drones evoke potent, uncanny sensation: David Lynch, whose soundtrack (or "sound design") on the rebooted Twin Peaks is a noise masterwork.

Any listener interested in experimental music, or simply interested in exploring the limits of their own listening, would be wise to seek out this superb record.

Only Now, 'Elements'

POLAAR

Only Now is the alias of Kush Arora, a Bay Area-based artist and percussionist who explores the intersection between Indo-Caribbean rhythms and experimental music: think dub, dubstep, dancehall, bashment, bhangra, and beyond, all filtered through a techno-industrial lens.

Elements is his latest work, a four-track EP released by French label POLAAR. Like all of Arora's work, it is a collision of textures, styles, and sounds, operating in an expansive fashion; what's so compelling is how it makes explicit underlying connections between seemingly disparate scenes, borrowing as much from the sleek techno designs of Detroit and Berlin as it does the tangled polyrhythms of Lagos and Lisbon. The end result feels futuristic in a particularly prescient way, as though Only Now is the soundtrack to a diaspora we do not yet know exists.

The record's opener, "Dirt," is deliriously cacophonous, a percussive hailstorm. Remarkably, it doesn't sound overcrowded, a testament to Arora's skill as a sound-weaver. "Factory Ghost" loses no drummed momentum, but sounds relaxed in comparison.

Flip the record over for Elements’ eponymous track, my favorite of the bunch. Here, syncopated beats, the cocking of a gun bolt, and ghastly chanting intertwine, sounding like a post-apocalyptic club scene in a William Gibson short story. "Tribute to Detroit," as its title suggests, is the record's most overtly "techno" tune, and it's gorgeous, built around shimmering synth chords.

My only qualm is that it's over too fast; some of the tunes, as frenetic as they are, could have benefited from room to breathe. No matter: Only Now is building a sonic world of his own, and sounds quite unlike any other Bay Area artist.


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Chris Zaldua is a writer and DJ living in San Francisco. Email him here

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