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The Wigmaker in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg

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Dusted's Max Black takes an in-depth look at the career-defining double-disc by To Live and Shave in L.A., The Wigmaker in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg, released on Menlo Park.

The Wigmaker in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg

Oh, how to begin. To Live and Shave in L.A., named after a mid 1980's porn video, have put out a noise record. For the unfamiliar, the texture of the music is probably closest to harsh noise, but they're more varied, both within songs and across records, than that term usually implies: on record, their usual bag has been studio manipulation of live performances in a band format, usually guitar, drum, oscillators, and voice, and Super Halitosis is based almost entirely on voice samples. In a fashion appropriate to their mighty status, they've changed line-ups a few times and spawned a raft of side projects and semi-legitimate spinoff bands (I Live in L.A., To Live and Shave in Laura Ashley, To Live and Shave in L.A. 2, etc.), but the core of the band has always been vocalist/studio person Tom Smith, whose unusual merits will be described shortly. For this record, TLASILA would seem to be Tom Smith, Ben Wolcott, and Rat Bastard, joined by quite a few guests: Mr.Velocity Hopkins, Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers, and random passerbys at a Target among them. Good luck finding any of them, given the insane studio work on this record: Smith spent five continuous years putting together the final mix: the whole undertaking is clearly a magnum opus for the band, and this is the last thing that they are going to put out: it's hard to imagine how Smith's new project (Ohne, due out soon, improbably, on teutonic-clicking-noise-and-beeping label Mego) will compete. The sheer length and density of the record is amazing: it is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and not one second drags or comes across as filler. TLASILA has always put out great stuff, but nobody was expecting anything quite of this magnitude, and the record seems to already be spawning a clutch of rumors and speculation.

At any rate, more timely and better-informed reviews than mine have already been put out elsewhere (c.f. Chris Sienko and Larry Dolman's pieces in Blastitude, but there's so much to be said, and so much recognition due, that i'll put in my two cents. In short, The Wigmaker in Colonial Willamsburg is the best psychedelic record of the last ten years, overdriven to ridiculous High-Rise extremes, but with absolute clarity of every weird detail, a total collapse every ten seconds with no energy lost, and, the cherry on top, Tom Smith's beautiful voice.

First, the vocals. Smith's voice is a work of art on its own, and pretty much impossible to describe: a sleazy sex drawl modulating into an ass-on-fire screech into Vegas cigarette-lounge crooning. There is something supernatural about it, and in visualizing him singing I like to imagine his head expanding, contracting and developing bulges in sync with the music. He tends to sing on a single pitch, sliding and twisting notes for emphasis, working around a cramped, sickly melody that never fully appears. There is something hypnotic about the incantantory, monotonous declamation of the bizarre lyrics, and I can't help noting the resemblance to another notable vocalist named Smith: as with The Fall, there is the literary style and total inscrutability in the lyrics, mannered vocal accent, delerious, repetitive intonation of one line after another, and the sense that the music is somehow actively antagonistic to and tormenting the vocalist instead of "playing along".

Oh, the lyrics. The core around which the music wraps is a bizarre stylistic amalgamation of French Symbolism, 16th century epic poetry, and hot porno that seems calculated for impenetrability and frequently comes in rhymed couplets. Example: "Coitus itself became the sled of single, canonical scent/The pornographer, his flowering, galloping eye, sky of his delight/remained faithful to beloved Lucrece, and ogled and consumed." Eh? All of this obscurity is, in turn, very rarely intelligible in the music, as Smith obscures the words under the heavy production and nutcase declamation, but clearly, a hell of a lot of work went into making them. Trying to get "the point" behind this is like trying to decipher Linear B, but the surface is so overwhelming and dense that you still want to attempt it: and there is something mystical and obscure about this aspect of the music—like an enormous, sumptuous temple built to house a few chunks of unidentified human remains.

None of this really gets to the visceral charge of the music, though. While, yes, the production took five years, the record sounds like it could have been improvised in a single take: every edit is spontaneous, unexpected, and the overall rhythm of the music seems as completely intuitive as a live harsh noise performance: it's as if Smith recorded himself having a grand mal seizure in his bathroom, and the production was burned directly into the master tapes by unknown agents. Everything overloads, cuts off, splatters: I had ninety favorite parts of this record, and none of them lasted more than five seconds: the weird boinging quality of some of the noise chunks, the inexplicable screaming hosannas for "WIGMAKERRRR", a creepy-ass second voice buried in the mix in "New Poem Dramatized for Lux Cudgel", a nice bass drone in "Tortillon Fluff": and so on. A lot of the praise due for Wigmaker can also be said for good noise in general: it is both fascinating and viscerally aggressive, it makes you see things when you close your eyes, you vascillate between wanting to dance to it and sitting slack-jawed. It is not, however, good clean fun: there is a lingering sense of pain, corruption, and hellishness, concepts which have been so worn down by Reznorite nitwits that it seems unwise to elaborate. The involved Reformation-era pastiche of the lyrics actually feeds this: there is something about all the horny viscounts in bulging tights, sweaty chafed monks busting out of their hairshirts, piles of engaged jiggling rosy flesh, coupling, still adorned in boustiers and codpieces, smothered under roccoco glop, and, of course, gigantic metastatized wigs (imagine the smell), that seems a lot dirtier than the usual fishnets-n-booze sleaze imagery. The music seems like hellfire and damnation and Smith, in true satanic fashion, seems to be the wretch in torment and simultaneously enjoying himself.

The violence of the music is difficult to communicate: it is like watching footage of waterfalls cut into half-second shots; like watching an steelmill collapse while the machines simultaneously continue to pour and shape metal; it is like watching a high-rise demolition that goes on for two continuous hours, and so on. What is difficult to convey is the simultaneous complexity in all that violence. The music stays put at the edge of perceptible detail, making its points too quickly for consideration: in consequence, it acts on you: endless waves of jump cuts, digital-processing squiggles, and stereo placement effects force a kind of immediate intuitive reaction to the music. The whole affair is pretty clearly psychedelic in the original sense of the term, and there's a structural similarity between it and some 60's era noise goo blobs like the "free-form freakouts" in the first Red Krayola album. TLASILA's stuff is a good deal more complex and dense: it's easy to imagine there being specific names for each of the little bursts of sound, like each one came from an individual type of machinery. While there is a lot of use of samples and some of what is going on seems to be processing of live performances, forget trying to identify sources: I frequently had difficulty even figuring out what I was hearing, suddenly realizing one sound had stopped fifteen seconds ago, or that the vocals had come back in. The only identifiable musical sample, from The Alarm Clock's "Yeah", runs a scant five seconds of the record's running time: it's similarly difficult to identify what sounds were produced during the original performances at what was added in by Smith later (so if I'm short-shrifting the other musicians in this review, I apologize profusely).

There's a definite arc through the record: my favorite parts were in the second half of the second disc, where more samples and effects interrupt the music. First a weirdly bass-heavy, slowed-down sample "sunrise, sunset...sunrise, sunset" evokes the image of the song's once-normal crooners, now chanting in vacant-eyed insanity: the only explicit reference to Satan (a sample of a street preacher) occurs a little later. Next, a sample of someone quickly reciting multiplication tables like a panicked autistic trying to maintain mental order, followed by the loudest, noisiest most intricately put-together material yet: Mr. Smith sounds very unwell: the sample here, "Of course, visitors enjoy having their picture taken in the pillory and stocks." Next, he's processed through a shlocky, oversaturated keyboard bed, producing a sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of vocoders: the effect of patronizing dime store catharsis, nestled in the middle of all this hell, becomes oddly touching, like letting the damned man see God for a few seconds before he roasts. While the previous hour and a half of music is aggressive and disorienting, this final quarter is when a specific sense of psychological collapse and terror begins to set in: the unexpected intensification pulls the rest of the album's 140-minute length taut and focuses the menace and confusion.

Many of the 1960’s underground culture obsessions (mental derangement, atavism, satanic influence, etc.) are pretty clearly at play in Smith's mythos. Smith's collaborated not only with noise groups like Prick Decay, Chicago no-wave folk (there's a Lake of Dracula bit sampled into “Full Choke Wigmaker's Vise”), but also with Simeon from the Silver Apples (on “Tonal Harmony”). Likewise, both Tom Smith and the 1960's excel at shameless groin music, performed by sexually creepy weirdos in ridiculous outfits: groin music which is at the same time painstaking, adventuresome studio work drawing in every available sonic resource. Yes, in terms of subject matter, there's a more proximate connection to Throbbing Gristle, Nurse with Wound, Current 93 et. al., but To Live and Shave in LA doesn't really sound much like any of these fellows, most of whom were making dance records with slap-bass parts and "tribal drumming" within three years of their founding/splintering. Pure harsh noise (e.g. Masonna), which the Shave Boys sound more like, has always really been an extension of punk: crunching, black-and white, and, unlike Tom Smith, amateurist. Yes, TLASILA are “Punk As Fuck” or whatever, but so were the Sonics. The energy in TLASILA's stuff has more in common, in structure and in spirit, with Free Jazz, and Garage, than it does with mechnical thunking power chords and Oi grunts. And, need I reiterate, the music is damned psychedelic: the images it induces seem like the kind of things that would be produced by some weird Amazonian plant with an all-consonant name (I do not recommend listening to this music on any kind of mind-altering substance). The points of reference for this would probably be in the deeper reaches of 60’s underground whatnot: for this reason we will now descend into obscurantism.

In particular, consider the filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anger was a master of arduous studio manipulation: for example Eaux D'Artifice (which features a Shavesque wig) was filmed on Infrared film, with the one element of color (the lavender "Magic Fan" of the protagonist), painstakingly hand-tinted onto the print by Anger himself. Most of the films juxtapose elaborately acted and documentary footage (including a Hell's Angels initiation rite) with found material such as cheapo sunday-school Jesus films, 20's dance spectaculars and a bizarre scene of a fifty-foot plaster Moloch with moving arms devouring rag-clad female extras. Anger often combined all of these sources in quadruple or quintuple-exposed barrages, and the component images were always excessive: gushing waterworks, elaborately costumed Gods, leather enthusiasts, motorcycles, disembowelments, and drug-taking all feature prominently. In Wigmaker fashion, all of this was in the service of an incomprehensible, wildly elaborate occult text: while the Drug and Satan business is pretty clear, you need an outside reference to tell you that the central figure in Invocation of the Pleasure Dome is supposed to represent Shiva subsuming his guests in an orgy of destruction. Both Smith and Anger compulsively overlay material, both seem to have a close relation to the satanic and to Baroque pomp, and both are vaguely glam.

Also consider Intersystems's Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, a truly weird concept album that prefigured the Power Electronics voice-plus-noise formula by a good fifteen years, and which was reissued a few years back by the Cortical Foundation. A flat-voiced, clinical narrator tells of the adventures of young lovers Gordy and Marie, making their way in the plastic world. Gordy and Marie undergo head-expansion by unclear means through the course of the record ("Oh my God Gordy, the walls are moving, Gordy"). The music is mostly done with oscillators, and most strikingly tends to use sections of very abrasive high-pitched sine tones for thirty or forty-five second clips in between the narration, somewhat similar to Whitehouse. When not screeching away, the music tends to rely on other modes of disorientation like jumpy editing, and stereo-phasing effects. In spirit, the whole thing is still closer to TLASILA than Whitehouse, and it has the same sweep as Wigmaker, albeit more comprehensibly.

Of course, there are a lot of other connections. Wigmaker shares a principle or two with slasher movies: occasionally you will just barely hear a second voice under all the processing, slight enough to make you doubt that you heard it at all, and in the confusion you wonder if this quieter voice has been there all along. Also, the sheer speed and aggression of the jump cuts, the scariness of it all, the distorted moaning voice all could come from an 80's gorefest. The record even has a twist ending – one more song after the dopey reconciliatory travelogue, like when the hero finally gets to go to bed after the Night of Unspeakable Horror, wakes up, switches on the radio, and finds that all the stations are broadcasting nothing but low inhuman mumbling and atonal beeping.

So, that's the record. It's out on a great label, too, Menlo Park, which has put out music by Deerhoof, Frosty, Alva, and other folk. Snap it up if you get the chance.

By Dusted Magazine

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