various artists,
Boston Underbelly
(Sublingual, 1998)

Well, you get your money's worth, that's for sure; 73 minutes, 21 tracks, nine artists and bands from the underbelly of Boston's music scene(s). The first thing to note, in fact, is that this isn't a survey of Boston experimental music per se; many of these folks have come from, and continue to inhabit, the rock circuit more than anything that Londoners might recognise as a "free improv" scene or New Yorkers as "downtown." Andrew Neumann and Saturnalia released CDs simultaneously with this one, also on Sublingual; generously enough, what's here doesn't duplicate anything on those releases except for two edited versions of longer tracks.

Neumann and Saturnalia are most heavily represented on this compilation, with four and five tracks respectively; Neptune and Mile Wide weigh in with the next largest contributions of three songs each. Neptune create jangling rock from simulacra of conventional instruments welded out of scrap metal, and while the results are predictably tinny and detuned they're also surprisingly conventional. Thumping, bluesy riffs predominate, creating something between college-boy grunge and pub blues. Perfectly listenable, but nothing like as outre as they look on paper.

Mile Wide, on the other hand, don't look terribly experimental anyway; a folk-rock band with cheesy progressive lyrics who would sound like early Genesis if it weren't for Saturnalia regular Vic Rawlings' unhinged ethno-forgeries on banjo and sarangi. Probably a lot of fun live, both Mile Wide and Neptune do something "alternative" rather than avant garde, although they certainly do it rather well.

Bill T Miller, whose sampladelia so livened up Saturnalia's self-titled debut, is a very different kettle of fish. He appears on three tracks here, once with Kings of Feedback and twice with Orgy of Noise. Kings of Feedback are again coming from the rock camp, but with an awareness of electronic music that gives them an edge. "Whispers" is a nice collage of pulsing industrialism, rock textures and spoken/whispered voices; very effective. "Orgy of Noise" is, if anything, even better, sounding like a live version of Ground Zero's "Revolutionary Pekinese Opera" -- wildly agressive, jump-cutting every few seconds, they produce a spikey, alienating din that is, in the small doses presented here, hugely enjoyable. One hopes that Miller will be doing more with Sublingual in the near future.

There are also a handful of single tracks here that are worthy of attention. "Moulty's Hand," though it sounds like an obscure Irish jig, is in fact a patently not-entirely-improvised song by Sigmoid Flexure, who apparently specialise in "loud free improv." Well, there are certainly composed sections here, but Emily Weber's Zorn-esque tenor (yes, complete with the ultra-high-pitched squeals for which JZ himself employs the more amenable alto) keeps the pressure on and gives some sections a Painkiller feel. There's more restlessness here, as with Orgy of Noise, a nice sense that an eight-minute improvisation needn't do any of the expected things. It's a lot of fun, although the constant returns to the not-awfully-interesting 6/8 riff do sometimes chafe a little.

The Binary System, on the other hand, look like a classic free improv duo of prepared piano and drums. We'd be on home turf here, were this not "Boston Underground." As it is, there are none of the skittering freeform shapes which we've grown accustomed to in this part of the world; no, these are players, again, with rock and even dance music sensibilities rather than traditional free jazz chops. Their playing is dark, rhythmic and sometimes repetitive, Roger Miller attacking his piano interior with ceaseless inventiveness while Larry Dersch unhurriedly rolls out the beats with a set of mallets. One of the highlights of this compilation, and let's hope there's an album in the pipeline.

The final track here is the one they would have trailed it with if Sublingual were interested in grabbing as big a slice of the market as possible at whatever expense. Well, they were right not to, because although Thurston Moore's is a big name, it's quite right that the focus should be on the lesser-knowns for whom this is a more crucial release. Here he does -- for just two minutes -- pretty much what he's known for, producing a multi-tracked squall of guitar noise comparable with Caspar Brotzmann.

It's a good example of the genre, but don't buy the CD for it. Buy it for Neumann and Saturnalia, Sigmoid Flexure and Bill T Miller and the outstanding Binary System. That's a lot of interesting, unusual and stimulating music for your money, and the remaining tracks are unremarkable, but not at all bad. Particularly if you like experimental rock, this disc offers an excellent insight into a scene producing its own kind of alternative music.

- Rambles
written by Richard Cochrane
published 30 August 2003