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Mego: In Question

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Dusted's Matt Wellins attempts to theorize the last six months of the gloriously frustrating Mego label.

Mego: In Question

Maybe there is a lineage. Maybe if we dig up scraps of the eminently Austrian Schoenberg, scraps of the idiom-clashing Ives, scraps of Plunderphonic pioneer James Tenney. If we assume that the tone row was really a populist approach to composition and that the integration of popular music into dense dissonances and tape collages was somehow influential on future generations, maybe. Maybe if we imagine that the Velvet Underground were actually the first band to integrate art culture leanings with popular music, maybe. Or if we credit the influence of ecstatic electronic pop music, that somehow accentuated and animated previous conceptions of timbre and form, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Conny Plank, maybe even Joe Meek, for instance. Any other obscuro delight – Pierre Schaeffer and Spooky Tooth, or the uneven contours of Lyle Lovett’s head, or you know, Buffy St. Marie’s Illuminations, with all of its electronic ornamentation – that might easily slide into Mego’s roster.

But considering the last stream of releases, that easily traceable history isn’t so easily traceable, especially with the decidedly American frame-of-reference given here. Perhaps this is the strong suit – a multi-cultural “mixed salad” and occasional melting pot, in the case of the ever-democratic FennO’Berg amalgam, giving enthusiasts exposure to Viennese, Japanese, Australian, Austrian, Finnish, French, American, Italian, British, etc, etc, culture. Maybe the Innsbruck Winter Olympics of 1976 was the motivating factor; a toddler version of Ramon Bauer watching the good sportsmanship of competing nations and victory of Austrian Franz Klammer, the downhill skiing maverick gold-medallist. Or maybe the legendarily progressive School of Music in Vienna was responsible. As we take a look at this third wave of Viennese composers to turn preconceived notions of music completely on their head, there is an overwhelming sense of disorientation, an overwhelming amount of information and possibility. Anything in history could be relevant: millions of fragmented lineages; cultural events; an exchange of words; a limited print-run of an obscure detective novel; a tourist swept away under a bus.

To add to the enormous overload is a gurgling “Fuck You” iconoclasm lurking beneath the surface. Be it the four days of music on the new Farmers Manual DVD, the painfully irritating cotton candy streams of noise from Hecker’s work, the splattering, offensive cut-ups from Aleph Empire, the Buffalo Springfield sample on the Return of Fenn O’Berg, or QuintetAvant’s proof that the ever-academic school of French Musique Concrete can just as easily and effectively be improvised, there is a sense of cultural relevance that Mego thrives upon, untouched by other labels, whether the accused are merely too wrapped up in nostalgic pop or simply resorting to releasing those archival reissues of “important milestones.” Mego even has the antidote to its own agenda in Noriko Tujiko, whose decidedly progressive pop music is by far the most accessible work in the label’s catalog.

So, the last set of releases, as mentioned above, have been particularly crucial in setting the bar for challenging music. The releases, Farmers Manual’s rla DVD, Aleph Empire’s 3” Playback Device Confusion Vol. 1, QuintetAvant’s Floppy Nails LP, Hecker’s 2 Track 12 12”, and Massimo’s Hello Dirty CD, show Mego finally reaping the artistic freedom of nearly a decade of labor. Everyone partaking in this work is immediately implicated. The ability to experience all of this recorded material suggests some degree of complicity with the corporations that manufacture computers, DVD players, turntables, etc. Fetishistic packaging further commodifies the experience, be it Aleph Empire’s 3” shaped like a set of turntables or Hecker’s 12”, wrapped in a somewhat vague plastic sleeve, duping DJs who don’t know better. There are varying degrees of complexity implied here, but at the very least, a listener will be forced to wonder why a simple booklet tucked neatly into a jewel case has been sufficient artistic communication for the past couple of years.

Yet, lest ye to believe that these endeavors are mere adornment, in fact, the packaging and medium often serve as an initial insight into the work itself. Take for instance QuintetAvant’s Floppy Nails, an LP-only release dominated by skewered, tongue-in-cheek nostalgia, both in its media format and its willfully kitschy cover depicting a slightly pixilated Osmond family. The music, in turn, is a glorious return to Musique Concrete aesthetics. The ability to transport tangible sounds into a musical context, to manipulate them within a somewhat defined framework (but here, as always with Mego, those boundaries are blurred). Floppy Nails has an important distinction, though, a surprising blind-spot for the forward-thinking avant-gardists of the ’50s; the simple addition of improvisation sets QuintetAvant apart from both traditions of tape music. In fact, the tape recorder aesthetics seem to set them apart from most forms of electro-acoustic improvisation, a genre that embraces abstraction more than tangibility.

This is a fundamental point for Mego: its music doesn’t aspire to the same lofty goals of spirituality, aesthetic grace and perfection. There are none of the needlessly abstract gestures emblematic of art culture. There is a lucid clarity to Mego. This doesn’t necessarily mean the music is somehow easier to digest; rather the releases all seem to have certain, identifiable thematic strengths. The prerequisite seems to be an emphasis on the intellectual over the sensual, though at best, neither is compromised.

rla, Farmers Manual’s 4-day long DVD of mp3-encoded music conveniently seems to embody this seemingly paradoxical idea. The Mego website answers the self-posed question “How to Deal with this DVD?” in the usual deadpan “the DVD shall be inserted into your computer’s DVD drive. To get to the files (mp3, quicktime, pics), just open the index.html from the DVD and load the content to your mp3, quicktime or other player.” The truth being that there is no way to deal with this DVD – four days of music is simply unprecedented in recorded music. rla is, hands-down, a landmark that will either be greeted with the same reverence as other legendary releases that heralded a new day in music-making, or it will completely dismantle that tradition.

Farmers Manual have always thrived conceptually. FSCK and Exploders_WE are early explorations into the finer points of CD player versatility, namely the precision of time-elapsed displays and randomize buttons, using the format as a springboard to delve into issues of technology and authorship. Yet discussing these ideas in a clear-cut fashion is completely contrary to the experience of hearing Farmers Manual. Their work is a detritus-laden landscape of imperceptible fragments, industrial repetition, and occasional blurts of humor. There is never any firm ground – their music ranges from the brash and lazy to the concentrated and surprising, and always remains unsettling. Whereas a group like Kraftwerk slaved over their synthesizers to give the impression that machines did all the work, Farmers Manual seem to be the concluding gesture, music that very literally seems predetermined by the advantages and limitations of machines, and little else.

This is not necessarily the ideal kind of music that one would want in such excess, yet over the course of the DVD there is some marked artistic progress. This is, however, the perfect documentation of Farmers Manual’s experiments; an endless stream of information (leaking over to the Internet, where all of the DVD’s mp3s are archived, alongside of newer additions).

Mego, therefore, is a label that acknowledges abundance. This explains its affinity for noise. The idea of a perpetual assault, derived from the dregs and subconscious of a wasteful culture emblematic of Merzbow’s theoretical standpoints, seems to find a new outlet in Mego. More questions stem from this. Are we responsible as guardians of discarded culture? As archivists, when is it time to throw something away? When confronted with the reality of artwork liberated from restrictions of time, space, and economics, how do we respond?

Aleph Empire’s Playback Confusion Vol. 1 is charged by these issues as well, though perhaps his execution isn’t quite as subtle as Farmers Manual. Empire’s 3” CD is reminiscent of cut-up collage-period John Zorn, with the exception, or rather inclusion, of the electronic music culture that Zorn was blind to as a composer (for further evidence see Zorn’s Songs from the Hermetic Theater). Abrasive, bloody, and perhaps embodying the virulent extreme of Mego’s combative stance, Playback Confusion Vol. 1 uses noise similarly to Tochnit Aleph labelmates Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock and precedents like Whitehouse, implementing sensory assaults through dynamics, but more so through the unsettling content. Whitehouse, even more than Merzbow, whom in retrospect comes across as somewhat academic as of late, showed that music was not as safe and comfortable as people seemed to think it was, that the lewdness of Purple Rain was hardly up to par with porn films and fascist propaganda. To some degree, this restores some actual potency to the lofty abstractions of music, yet as Empire’s CD concludes with a mocking cabaret number about concentration camps, “When I was young, I was happy / Till some Nazis killed my Daddy”, the nature of this kind of provocation seems ambiguous.

Hecker’s 12” effectively rankles in the more traditional sense, and essentially in the exact same vein as Sun Pandämonium. Superficially, it’s unsettling noise. Yet, Hecker doesn’t conform to any of the standard noise clichés. There isn’t just an abundance of filtered white noise or high-pitched frequencies; instead, Hecker takes tones and emphasizes higher-end, dissonant harmonics that are unmitigated in their unpleasantness, and then proceeds to layer these types of sonorities, sliding them up and down with a sense of aimless abandon. A co-release with Australian record label, Synaesthesia, this 12” is certainly one of the less essentially Mego releases, showing Hecker to be relatively complacent, stylistically, and will hopefully be offset by his upcoming collaboration with CD-damaging pioneer Yasunao Tone.

And speaking of CDs, the most recent release from Mego that the majority of people have the equipment to hear was released nearly six months ago. Massimo’s crushing Hello Dirty comes across as a pretty summation of the recent Mego agenda, beautifully tying the knot between the noisy junk erotic subconscious and the synonymously sensuality of rock ‘n’ roll scorn. Hello Dirty is noise’s Presence, an onslaught of overwhelming velocity with a lurking, ominous suggestion of sexuality. Whereas Mego’s other releases certainly aren’t as hormonal, the recent batch has certainly been as confrontational, giving some contention to the predominant complacency of music.

Mego’s most lauded releases, Endless Summer, Sheer Hellish Miasma, and both of Noriko Tujiko’s successes concurrently have follow ups on other labels; Touch, Hanson, and Tomlab, respectively. Yet, all of these releases, be it Drumm’s Land of Lurches or Noriko Tujiko’s From Toyko to Niagara, show artists refining their experiments. Mego has somehow managed to avoid refinement for over seven years now, and perhaps there is no better compliment to pay to it.

By Matt Wellins

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