From Aural Innovations #19 (April 2002)
What follows is an overview of many of the recordings in the Haltapes CD catalog. Some are CDR reissues of cassettes that Hal released in the 1980's, and many are more recent works. I started with Hal's solo works and moved on to his collaborations, in each case more or less reviewing the most recent releases first. Note that there are a handful of Hal's CD's that I didn't have time to review for this issue. Watch for those in the July issue of Aural Innovations.
Hal McGee - "Maps Of Nowhere" (F.D.R. Recordings 2000, #133)
A collage of noise, voice samples, and in the background early on it sounds like some old American folk or chanting religious song. I hear sirens, traffic, and samples from the radio, implying some distorted urban landscape. But things are at various points in the recording somewhat more tangible as we hear Hal's conversations with people at work and other places. It's amazing how sensitive a tape recorder can be, and the slightest shuffling of objects is as prominent in volume as are the conversations. Though the noise is... well, noise... it isn't grating though it can certainly be brain-piercing. How, you ask, can sounds be brain-piercing but not grating? Well, it's hard to explain but my brain perceives a difference between the two. Grating is when you just have this huge sonic wall of noise all blended together and the listener is completely unable to distinguish between multiple sounds. So even though things get pretty chaotic on Maps Of Nowhere, I feel myself getting involved in Hal's world when I can distinguish and even recognize many of the layers and elements that make up the whole. The voices, the drones, the whistles, the traffic.... and so on. If you're relaxed and let your imagination go then a parade of surprisingly concrete images will formulate in your mind. It's difficult to describe the aesthetics of pure sound, especially when those sounds happen to be a tad harsh.
Hal McGee - "Wired For Sound" (6 On The Dot 2000)
The back tray card notes that Wired For Sound was recorded and "composed" entirely with a Sony Cassette-Corder TCM-453V. And indeed the disc opens with Hal stating, "Sounds on a tape. Sounds on a tape". And that's precisely what this is... sounds on a tape. We hear Hal's spoken word, we join him in the bathroom, hear him in conversation with his niece and others... loads and loads of pasted together field recordings. I remember when I was little my grandfather had this old reel-to-reel and I'd record for hours, getting something similar to what Hal has of his niece. I'd go on endlessly about imaginary friends and such, but in my teen years my grandfather made the mistake of giving me and my sisters the reel-to-reel and all the tapes... all of which we promptly taped over. Boy do I regret that now. But I digress. One of the interesting things about Wired For Sound is the (I presume) deliberately choppy way in which Hal edits together the various bits that make up the CD, which gives it a raw quality that makes things a bit jarring throughout and, given that I was listening with headphones, a little dizzying as well. I described hearing something similar on Maps Of Nowhere, though Wired For Sound largely dispenses with the sonic explorations in favor of a focus on words, poetry, and day-to-day sounds and activities. It's seems chaotic as hell and I found it difficult to listen to the entire 70 minutes in one sitting, but on a voyeuristic level it's quite cohesive and probably my favorite of all Hal's works I've heard. I felt like I was following Hal around hiding in the bushes as he experiences a typical day, presented against a wildly surreal backdrop.
Hal McGee - "I Am A Black Hole" (F.D.R. Recordings 1998/2001, #146)
As the title implies, we're getting more aggressively into the space realm, though it's a noisy corner of the cosmos indeed. Actually we're camped out in the heart of the engine room with all the accompanying mechanical sounds. Some of the music consists of peaceful drifting drones, though running parallel to them are assertive waves of fuzz and static. So there are some strangely ambient experiences here. But don't expect it to facilitate meditation. What's really interesting is the contrasting layers. And buried in the mix at one point I heard some keyboard noodlings that added an avant-jazz flavor.
Hal McGee - "1998" (F.D.R. Recordings 1998/2000, #131)
1998 consists of music taken from two of Hal's cassette releases from that year. His catalog refers to the contents as "The lo tech aesthetic taken to the nth degree". We hear oodles of excessive noise plus Hal expounding on the nature of his tape projects and other subjects. There's some seriously extreme stuff here folks and is NOT for the fainthearted. Hal will chat for while, and then... BANGO!!! Your head is being split open by a blazing sonic meat cleaver. And just when you think the shock therapy is going to perform the aural equivalent of a lobotomy... Hal is chatting again. But there's also a fair amount of noisy but melodic explorations too. Space drones coexist with minimalist ambient Phantom of the Opera keys while the expected found sounds parade around throughout, embellished by screams that recall the witches from Suspiria. Yes, Hal is the avant-garde electro-noise monologing bastard child of Goblin.
Hal McGee - "1995-1997" (F.D.R. Recordings 1995/1996/1997/2000, #130)
Note the cover of this CD. I got a kick out of Hal's catalog description... "Don't trust that smiling face. Listen to me scrape your brain with crusty noise and infiltrate your dream state with my words". But much of this is actually very mellow, meditative, and space ambient relative to a lot of Hal's work. Oh, it has plenty of quirkiness, noise, and experimental bits to keep things interesting. But Hal shows the interest in cosmic exploration that I first heard on the Ancient Astronauts collaboration with Chris Phinney (see AI #13), and even the harsher segments are more linear than chaotic. I like the evolutions through a variety of space themes and atmospherics that are at various times mechanical, wailing, and meditative, but also has a sci-fi soundtrack feel. Very thematic. The patterns and atmospherics are continually shifting, but Hal manages to transition things such that it all feels cohesive, despite being a bit abrupt. Keep us listeners on our toes! There's also a bit of spoken word, electro experimental Beat poet type stuff. Like Ginsberg backed by The Residents. Overall, an enjoyably freaky set that straddles the lines between space ambient, noise, prog rock, and experimental electronics.
Hal McGee - "Experimental Electronic Music 1986-1987 Recordings As DOG AS MASTER" (F.D.R. Recordings 1986-87/2001, #142)
Lots of cosmic and totally freaked out space electronics similar to the music heard on 1995-1997. Readers who are less inclined toward the pure sound and field recording type collages but enjoy experimental electronics that can be identified as music will find lots of good ideas on these recordings. The music includes ambient elements but is far too aggressive to be called ambient. And there are lots of noise elements but only within the context of something larger. And I also hear occasional melodic bits that give the music a prog rock feel like I heard on 1995-1997, though I think most prog rock fans would run scared from this stuff. "Range" is my favorite track with its wild backwards looped patterns played alongside pounding machine-shop noise beats and intense electro symphonic madness. But there's also plenty of cool sci-fi soundtrack styled stuff as well. The patterns develop for a while... then change... you can tell at this point in time Hal was still experimenting, exploring, and continually discovering.
Hal McGee - "Electronic Experimental Music 1984-1985 Recordings As DOG AS MASTER" (F.D.R. Recordings 1986-87/2001, #141)
Lots of totally freaky experimental electronics. Fans of The Residents will find plentiful creative craziness here as Hal explores the more whimsical side of space. The human voice is a prominent player, both spoken word and as an instrument subject to effects and general mangling. There are also plenty of the harsh and chaotic space electronics that Hal excels at. I like the balance between dark atmospherics and intense sci fi "battle in space" scenarios. Dark and noisy industrial electronics are also in evidence, but aren't so dense that the variety of noises and textures aren't discernible from one another. Though aggressive and intense, the majority of the tracks manage to stay in the atmospheric realm, a difficult task indeed for this kind of music. Being able to distinguish all the sounds is important to me so I tend to enjoy these challenging workouts that give me something to wrap my ears around. A nice blend of sci-fi mania and quirky chaos. However, the 18-minute "Brash Pussy" is the track that knocks it all on it's ass, being a sonic industrial assault that pounds the brain into a pulp of dementia and confusion.
Phil Klampe, Hal McGee, Brian Noring - "Shill" (F.D.R. Recordings/6 On The Dot 2001, F.D.R. #157)
With Shill we begin to explore Hal's collaborative works. Hal's catalog describes the music on Shill as being on the borderline of dark ambient and textural noise. I don't hear a whole lot of noise here with the exception of a little on "Tribal Stomp". A slowly developing theme consisting of space electronics and percussion is accompanied by a variety of sound patterns and textures, including bits found on shortwave radio. The percussion gives the stomp its tribal elements, though it's far too subtle to stir the natives to dancing around the fire. Some of the best parts are the quiet segments in which only a few components occupy the stage... pulsing radio signals, phased space electronics, sawing, scratching, banging... a sparse feel that brings together seemingly unrelated sounds to produce interesting avant-garde improvisations. "Candlebox Diorama" includes minimalist electronic patterns that evolve slowly, steadily building a suspenseful tension. It's spacey and trancey with a thematic feel that would make a great sci-fi flick soundtrack. "Visionary Cloud Formations" moves through all sorts of territory. Some of it is similar to "Candlebox Diorama", but others are more avant-garde minimalist. I dig the playful childlike melodies. But "Silhouette Tapestry" really took me by surprise, consisting of tranquil floating space electronics. The keyboards give the music a prog rock feel, though it's a thoroughly cosmic one. Far from being dark and intense, the music is meditative and spiritually uplifting.
Noring/McGee - "New Music For Shortwave Receiver And Tape Recorder" (F.D.R. Recordings 2000, #127)
The title says it in a nutshell. Hal's catalog describes the CD as "freeform cut-up collage concrete music treatments of raw sonic materials recorded on hand held cassette recorders used as compositional instruments". I remember when I was kid going to my grandparents house and playing with my grandfather's shortwave. I'd start at the far left of the channels and move very slowly to the right, the resulting noises, voices, sounds, and occasional music morphing from one to the next. Occasionally, as on this CD, I'd come across what sounded like Morse code signals and being fascinated to imagine that I might be tuning in to some spy activity. Mixed in with similar shortwave sounds, Noring and McGee paste in all manner of daily commotion they've recorded. The tape recordings are similar to Hal's Wired For Sound CD, but much of it is far less identifiable as everyday activities and conversations. Lots of interesting ideas and gloms of sound.
Noring/McGee - "Execution/Operation" (F.D.R. Recordings 2000, #119)
A similar banquet of pasted together sounds, electronics, radio waves, conversations, and varied field recordings. I like the engine room noise drones that pulsate and only slightly phase in and out. Some of this is structurally similar to the Wired For Sound CD in that the various tape bits are edited together in an abrupt choppy style that is raw, but has an interesting effect that's difficult to describe. There's also plenty of heavy noise laden space chaos. I think my favorite is the title track in which Hal and/or Brian is pondering the nature of the cut-up recordings they do... actually it sounds like ads they've place looking for collaborators. And I really got a kick out of one of the duo mentioning they've got a headache and then launch full tilt into a blaring sonic noise assault.
Noring/McGee - "Material Events" (F.D.R. Recordings 1999, #138)
Very sparse experimental improv. Subtle electronic bits, microphone manipulations, scratching, scraping, banging, clanging... just lots of varied sounds, including quiet, and even moments of complete silence. The expected machine-shop sounds are there but aren't nearly as aggressive as these guys typically make them. A quartet of lengthy sound explorations that challenges the listener's stamina and imagination. Lots of good ideas here if you're into avant-garde sound improvisations. I particular enjoyed the combo of freaky electronics and busy percussion.
Hal McGee/Phil Klampe - "Alien Progeny: Homemade Alien Music Volume 3" (Haltapes/6 On The Dot 1998)
I think Volume 2 of the Homemade Alien Music series was the first CD of Hal's music I heard, that one being a collaboration between Hal and Chris Phinney (see Chris Phinney profile in AI #13). Volume 3 consists of two 30 minute tracks which see Hal and Klampe combining avant-garde experimentations with more traditional space electronica. The minimalist sound patterns and noise waves are present though there are also plenty of keyboards that are pleasing to the ear and even, at times, dreamy. Melodic passages crop up from time to time, some of which create the feel of an electronic chamber ensemble in space. The atmosphere never gets too dark and is often playfully cheerful. During one passage I imagined these guys edging out Mothersbaugh to do the Rugrats In Space soundtrack. Overall I'd say it's the experimental side of the artists that dominates though they succeed in producing music that is highly accessible making this disc a good starting point for the curious but tentative who wish to tread lightly into the electronic space avant-garde.
Herd Of 360 Homogenized Dog - "Summit" (F.D.R. Recordings 1997/2000, #137)
An ensemble improv session consisting of Hal, Brian Noring, Shawn Kerby (Noring and Kerby record together as 360 Sound), Phil Klampe, and Charles Rice Goff III, who recently became known to me from his Magic Potty Babies CD. This is a fun set with lots of interesting combinations of harsh and pleasing sounds. The longest track is the 27 minute "Life On Mars". I enjoyed hearing playful block percussion alongside farting radio wave synths, abrupt sprooooooings, eerie ghost howls, samples of space station reports, and mucho more. One segment features dreamy synths, ethereal voice, and more of the space discussion samples, but there's a high pitched whining tone that seems to be a guardian against the atmosphere becoming too relaxing. The tone then travels into a pagan camp where trippy tribal percussion and chanting voices introduce a psychedelic element, but that mischievous synth isn't exactly a mantra for the listener to meditate on. It's tough on the brain, and I jumped to turned down the volume a few times, but the contrasts are what make everything interesting and challenging to listen to. But for those who wonder what "Life On Mar's" might have sounded like as a more aesthetically pleasing exploration, the lengthy "Muhammad's Tomato" seems to fit the bill. Equally freeform and experimental, it nonetheless has an avant-garde theater sound as it seems to be running through a series of loose themes. Imagine a psychedelic version of the Residents' Mark Of The Mole.... tough, isn't it?
Straphangers Art Ensemble - "Straphangers Ball" (Artichoke/Rollins/Haltapes 1997, F.D.R. Recordings #139)
Now here's something different. In the closest the Hal catalog seems to come to a "band" situation we've got Hal and John Burgos on synths, Keith Nicolay on guitar and flute, Ed Rollin on oboe, English Horn, recorders, and numerous other gadgets, Bruce Waid on insane rambling anguished vocals, and Doug "Alien Planetscapes" Walker on flute. There are 9 tracks on the CD though the catalog describes the set as one continuous 74 minute piece, and indeed it plays as such. The music has an avant orchestral rock vibe and gets well into abstract free-jazz territory at times too. Nicolay's guitar doesn't stand out often enough for me because when he does it's pretty hot. I'd be interested in hearing more of his work. Waid's vocals are like a neurotic Shamen attempting opera, and while he makes for an intriguing addition to the ensemble my jury is still out on whether he really fits in or not. Most free-improv sessions that exceed an hour are bound to have their slow and/or uninteresting moments and Straphangers Ball certainly has it's share. But overall, this is a fun jam with lots of good ideas, excellent playing from the individual performers, particularly guitar and piano, and the group as a whole gels quite a bit, if not continuously.
Homemade Alien Music, Volume One (F.D.R. Recordings 1997, #63)
A compilation featuring tracks by Hal, EHI, and Separation. EHI plays everything from vicious wind-tunnel noise assaults to totally freaky bleep-bleep space ambience and drones, to rumbling minimalist patterns. Hal starts off with a brutal noise assault, but his next track is a serene, lulling melodic piece, though it's off-kilter style keeps it in the avant-garde realm. "Visitation" is my favorite of the Hal tracks, being one of those blendings of tripped out cosmic space and wavy sandpaper noise. Separation contributes a 25 minute track and is the one example in this pile of CD's where I had to turn the volume UP. Quietly howling and pulsating waves of ambient space and drones. It's all very subtle and sparse, conjuring up images of floating helplessly though cold space in a dead ship. But it eventually comes to life as the subdued ambience is joined by more animated pulsations and tones. An excellent soundtrack characterizing the coldness and infinite vastness of space.
Phinney/McGee - "Gnarl/Knot" (Haltapes 1996, Harsh Reality 2001, HRCD008) The first Phinney/McGee collaboration I heard was the excellent Ancient Astronauts CD (see Chris Phinney profile in AI #13). Gnarl/Knot is a similar space adventure with both musicians playing ARP AXXE, Moog Rogue, Korg Poly 800, FX, and some guitar from Chris. Five long tracks in the 10-20 minute range give the boys plenty of room to stretch out and develop. My favorite tracks are "Variation In Texture" and "And They Were Savages". The former features and intense mechanical noise/drone backdrop that winds a slowly shifting path through the cosmos accompanied by totally spaced synths and a siren sound that conjures up images of some kind of space ambulance rescuing casualties of an inter-galactic battle. I dig the phased effect as the waves of drone float along their determined path. An icy engine room atmosphere contrasts nicely with the lively character of the space synths. Like a 50's sci fi flick soundtrack with the noise and drones adding the texture. "And They Were Savages" is pure cosmic space, covering territory that straddles the line between ambient and aggressive. The music starts off light, and then slowly builds to a high volume frenzy exceeding that heard on "Variation In Texture". This is the busiest track on the disc as a non-stop parade of synth patterns and sounds float and fly through the headphones... and, consequently, the listener's HEAD. I also dig the more purely avant-garde improv closing track with Chris on guitar. Excellent stuff and one of the standout discs in the catalog.