Hal McGee - "Deep Space Search Engine" (Haltapes 2002)
Hal McGee - "Sedimental Music" (F.D.R. Recordings 2001)
Hal McGee - "My Big Mouth: Voice Works 1981-1987" (F.D.R. Recordings 2002, #140)
Phinney/McGee - "Stranded On Earth" (Haltapes 2002)
Phinney/McGee - "Usufruct/Heads: Electronic Music 1989-1990" (Harsh Reality/Haltapes 2002)
Noring/McGee - "Random Sound Generator" (F.D.R. Recordings/Haltapes 2002)
From Aural Innovations #20 (July 2002)
Last issue we reviewed several of Hal McGee's releases and included an interview with Hal so if you're here now and missed that I'd encourage you to click the link at the bottom of this page and start there. Otherwise, here is the latest batch of Hal McGee music and sound sculptures, both solo and collaborations.
The aptly titled Deep Space Search Engine is Hal's newest release and is among the most purely spaced of the music I've heard from him. The opening and closing tracks - "To Travel In Space You Must Leave The Body" and "Radio Interference Grid" - recall the glory days of electronic Krautrock but all within a very "Hal" context. The former features space electronics with several parallel and intertwining patterns that develop very slowly . The mechanical minimalist aspect reminds me a lot of Neu!, and the few discernible melodies have a Kraftwerk sound, though there are some dreamier elements as well. "Radio Interference Grid" is similar but with a modest "rock" element that brings to mind a blending of Neu!, Tangerine Dream and Amon Düül II.
Most of the remaining tracks are similar but the focus is more on the gradual development of the minimal patterns, though "Oscillating Universe" does include bits of old time Krautrock and prog keyboard sounds. But with "Comet Ikeya-Zhang" we're getting more into what we'll call "classic Hal" territory. We're traveling on the tail of the comet and it's a raucous ride indeed. But then again you wouldn't expect to meditate while riding coach on a comet would you? It's full of slowly developing layers of drones, space waves, and noise. Yet despite the grating sounds it all still comes across as being very cerebral and ultimately accomplishes (though some will disagree) what space ambient music does. We'll call it noise-ambient. Overall an excellent set and a great starting point for the curious but tentative among you who would like to get their feet wet in Hal's music.
Taking a turn into more abstract territory is Sedimental Music. A continuous wave of noise creates a powerful wind tunnel effect. Alongside we hear all manner of mechanical sounds and Hal's "Wired For Sound" styled samples of everyday conversations and strolls about the city. It all has a very urban sound as I hear traffic and crowds, and the wind tunnel sounds and the various clatters really add to the hustle and bustle feel that we associate with a large city. The individual voices largely take a backseat to the noise patterns, though Hal's voice is distinct and usually can be heard above the storm. It reminds me of this little tape recorder I use for phone interviews... I think it cost about $30. But it's incredibly sensitive. It records voices beautifully but any noises that pop up in the background are picked up by this diligent little device and often overtake the voices, even though the voices are closest to the mic. Overall this is among Hal's lower-fi stuff and there's only one continuous theme making it difficult to listen to in one sitting. But if you dig Wired For Sound, Maps Of Nowhere, and similar of Hal's recordings then you're probably geared for the kind of listening required to enjoy this.
Once you've determined that you're addicted to Hal's swingin sounds, you'll be ready to dive into the archival My Big Mouth: Voice Works 1981-1987, which features some of Hal's earliest recordings. The first six tracks are from the 1982 cassette, 60 Minutes Of Laughter, which Hal and Debbie Jaffe had released as Viscera (see interview last issue for background info). The set opens with "Live At The Sanctuary", which showcases Hal and Jaffe at open stage night at a Country & Western bar in Indianapolis. Now when I lived in Atlanta many years ago I visited more than my share of honky tonks. But when I listen to the insane shit this duo unleashed on a cowboy crowd it astonishes me that they made it out without getting themselves BBQ'd and feathered. Following this are some tracks that put the spotlight on Hal's spoken or ranting word pieces backed by sparse Residents styled synth noodlings. You can tell he's exploring and experimenting in these early days of audio discovery, but Hal does have a pleasing sound, tone, whatever it is quality to his voice that works well for spoken word. My favorite is "Drifting Into Sync", which uses only the simplest of synth and electronic drums, but creates an eerie atmosphere for Hal's dark delivery and somewhat disturbing words. Similar to these are the next three tracks from the 1982 Viscera release, In A Foreign Film.
The next seven tracks are from the 1983 Viscera cassette, A Whole Universe Of Horror Movies, and here we start to hear the music getting a little more varied and adventurous. Likewise, Hal's vocal delivery takes on a somewhat avant-theatrical style which is quite nicely in line with the title of the cassette and makes for some interesting listening. The remaining tracks continue in this mold and there's a clear progression from one year to the next as we start to hear Hal's sounds and recording skills becoming more advanced and refined. Having heard quite a bit of Hal's music by now I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear these early recordings, and was particularly impressed with the intensity of some of his vocal workouts (check out "Stupid Bright Day"... SCARY!!).
Also recently released are two more collaborations between Hal and Chris "Mental Anguish" Phinney, one a set of new recordings and the other a reissue of two cassettes from 1989 and 1990. Stranded On Earth is the new disc and includes some totally cosmic electronic space with just enough noise and harshness to keep listeners wide-eyed and alert so they don't get any silly meditative thoughts. Single or slowly developing tones and noise waves are accompanied by busier and continually evolving sounds, along with all the otherworldly bleeps and blurps you could ever want. "Suffering" is a standout track featuring howling wind tunnel waves, brain shattering tones, mucho fun freaky Forbidden Planet sci fi electronics, and a faint pattern that reminds me of an old Alan Parsons tune on speed (last thing you were expecting huh?). "Sway" and "Sweat" are among the darker and more intense tracks, as well as featuring some of the more avant-garde sound sculptures, with their minimalist patterns and loads of banging and clattering on the former. An excellent set of electronic excursions that are deep in the chaotic (as opposed to ambient) realms of the cosmos.
The Usufruct/Heads CD reissues two cassettes of the same titles from 1989 and 1990. Usufruct includes two lengthy excursions of 22 and 16 minutes. Having heard several of their collaborations now it's clear that Chris really brings out Hal's cosmic side. The duo take off into the colder and more remote regions of space, encountering all sorts of obstacles and challenges along the way. This is powerful image inducing stuff and I guarantee you if these guys were cranking out sounds in the 1950's they'd be legends among sci fi soundtrack aficionados. I also liked the combination of freaked out space electronics and slow dark melodic keys that provoked thoughts of the Phantom of the Opera having joined the Residents. Eerie and enjoyably strange. The sound voyages on Heads are equally cosmic though some of it is a bit more raucous and rough round the edges. There are some shorter tracks, but these guys can cover a lot of ground in just a few minutes. The duo apparently left many stones unturned while exploring the space quadrant they visited on Usufruct and have returned to continue their investigations. But things seem a bit more difficult for the team at first because the pace and atmosphere is somewhat more frantic and intense and the sounds are much more aggressive. Soon things quiet down and we briefly end up with some of the calmest and most meditative music on the Heads portion of the set. Overall, it's the side by side cosmic space and harsher brain bristling stuff that tripped my trigger. It flows smoothly and make for some fun listening.
If Chris Phinney brings out Hal's more space cosmic side, Brian Noring brings out the more avant-garde abstract sound sculpture side (not that Hal needs much encouragement for that). In fact, Random Sound Generator includes what looks like the whole Noring family, plus Phil Klampe and Dave Wren. Actually this set isn't nearly as harsh as a lot of McGee/Noring collaborations and what makes it particularly interesting is the expanded instrumentation like guitar, piano, percussion and what sounds like maybe some other string and wind instruments that add a free-improv musical element to the sound sculptures.
So we've got the classic Hal conversation samples, plus free-improv with guitar, percussion, flutes, keyboards and piano. The opening track, "Window Shopping For Concepts" is like Sun Ra meets the Residents in a crowded bar at a carnival. Two of my favorites are "Himalayan Train Derailment" and "Searching For Lost Intentions", both of which really highlight the free-improv musical jams combined with voice samples á la Hal's Wired For Sound CD (see review last issue). I particularly liked the former, which includes wild free-improv noise electronics and classical music. The deep bass has kind of a rocking chaotic Fred Frith sound and more of that Sun Ra out there jazzy organ and freeform/modern classical piano, some [relatively] ambient bits... and, of course, a non-stop parade of banging, clanging and assorted sounds. Overall, this CD may well be my favorite example of Hal's use of everyday sounds combined with sound sculptures and... GASP!... actual music. Hell, there's even bits of Blues guitar. Multiple listens will surely reveal something new every time.
For more information you can email Hal McGee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Haltapes CD shop at: http://www.ebaystores.com/haltapes.
Contact via snail mail c/o Hal McGee; 1909 SW 42 Way Apt E; Gainesville, FL 32607-5407.
Read the extensive reviews and interview we did with Hal last issue at:
Hear a Hal McGee radio special at The Ear-Relevant Music Hoedown (show #10):
Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz