Permanent Records Synth: VCSR, Martin Rev

Permanent Records follows their February batch of hardcore and garage skuzz with a left-turn into equally hardcore synth releases. Their pairing of Martin Rev’s 1985 solo album Clouds of Glory and an archival issue of VCSR’s Tape #4 dive into deep longform excursions. Both releases counter chill, minimal synthetic music with robust visions, which helps electronic listeners fill out their history with a couple of distinct, uncompromising voices. Martin Rev’s work outside of Suicide adds tricky dimensions to his legacy as an outsider punk with that infamous duo, while VCSR gives listeners from Bil Vermette’s recent reissue another angle for appreciating Chicago’s hidden 1980s experimental landscape. Both issues are available from Permanent Records, and incidentally are a fine entry point to celebrating the store’s 9th Anniversary.

CLOUDS

Martin RevClouds of Glory (Reissue)

It’s quite fashionable to syphon synth music into genres that are “cold,” or “chill,” which makes Martin Rev’s 1985 solo album a surprising celebratory entry into experimental lore. Known as a member of infamous synth-punk group Suicide, Martin Reverby took quite a turn after making his mark with that band. If Suicide is renowned for opposing punk orthodoxy with a (then) unfashionable synthetic attack, Clouds of Glory, Reverby’s second solo record, deserves praise for breaking with the very tradition established by his own band.

Instead of doubling down on extremely minimal and repetitive work, Reverby employs a wider variety of tones, approaches, and textures to present his own vision. Clouds of Glory is a narrative, layered album that sounds robust and leads into several different variations of its theme. Unclassifiable swoops and blips frame early tracks on the solo effort, but those noises give way to a serene, conventional melody, as well as a few entries worthy of krautrock. Without vocals to offset the key-driven sounds, Reverby adds different textures and levels to his compositions, which expands the potential avenues for escape or travel on Clouds of Glory. This Permanent Records reissue gives fans a chance to reappraise Reverby’s work next to the most recent reissues of Suicide’s self-titled debut.

“Whisper” almost splits the album in half, and its slow, emerging melody and counterpoints allow the listener to reconsider the rest of the album. This song is the most shocking for its earnest, emotional delivery, and relatively conventional development of keyboard work. Against sparse percussion, two groups of arpeggios converge to form a catchy, but somber melody. “Whisper” is also undoubtedly the slowest song on the album, which completely re-paces some of the wild sounds and layers delivered on other tracks. Reverby discards his Suicide legacy in a gesture that’s seemingly suitable for grandma’s living room organ, and yet that gesture itself enhances Reverby’s credibility as someone who is willing to challenge his listener’s expectations and position with the music. Don’t be surprised if you feel nostalgic for these four minutes of the album; don’t be surprised if that nostalgia fades into some sense of misunderstanding or lost comprehension on Reverby’s more future-oriented tunes. Experimental music becomes experimental as much for manipulating a listener’s expectations and relationship to the music, as it is for delivering truly absurd, unlistenable, radical, or untimely meditations.

On the other hand, the basslines that form “Rodeo” or “Clouds of Glory” might sound more familiar to the fan picking up this album due to their Suicide fandom. Here, Reverby pushes that trademark minimalism with a key sound that is richer than his earlier works. The bass is heavier, there’s more vibrato, or a deeper “chorus” to enhance the sound. With this improvement in fidelity, these journeys sound closer to krautrock worship than Reverby’s previous work, which leads one to wonder whether these rhythmic repetitions are culminations of his vision that began with Suicide (or something completely external to that).

Even with some swooping oddities throughout these tracks, they continue the narrative bent that began with “Whisper,” and leave the listener questioning the best way to grapple with these tracks. As tempting as it might be to call them “spacey,” or “otherworldly,” there is a more interesting case to be made that Reverby’s key sound evokes images or reflections that are entirely of this world. Post-collapse New York, dominated by the World Trade Center (evident on the artwork), and a few other choice skyline silhouettes, may stand at the fore of Reverby’s mind for these compositions, and the resulting rhythms are perfectly suitable for the subway.

Working backwards, the first two compositions on Clouds of Glory are more abstract than the final set of songs, which results in a feeling of anticipation, or a clear incline during return listens. The listener can begin to see the image of the later repetitions emerging in the opening noises and expositions, or extended drone on “Parade.” In this way, Reverby guides his listener through a clearly narrative format of synth music, trading in any potential crutches of Suicide or synth-punk for a more lucrative payday that trades at other ends of the keyboards. There is a perfectly good argument to be made that one could enjoy this album as an archive in the development or advancement away from the first electronic albums and Suicide, but one can also take on Reverby’s challenges and test their own expectations for his key work. Chances are one will find greater potential in electronic music when they take that hunt.

VCSR

VCSRTape #4 (Archival Release)

Bil Vermette is working in his fifth decade in Chicago, playing and recording synthetic music that ranges from abstract, cosmic tones to expressive, even new wave rhythms. New appreciation of Vermette’s work largely began a few years back, as original stock copies of his Katha Visions album surfaced (Rainforest Productions). Permanent Records reissued that album, and now turn to an archival issue from Vermette’s experimental group, VCSR.

Tape #4 proves as elusive as the late-1970s, early-1980s ensemble, as it is simply one of many tapes produced by VCSR that are unreleased. From their own collection of tapes, this album features three compositions, which includes two extended performances. These mysterious recordings are titled by number, “#41,” “#26,” and “#32,” which adds to the archival feel of the release. Unlike Katha Visions, listeners will find synthetic and electronic playing that is less narrative or structural. Tape #4 meanders and expands throughout its longest compositions, giving the listener every opportunity to explore the spaces between subtle, trickling tones. While Vermette’s name might currently be most readily recognized, working as a quartet also gives VCSR a chance to add a collaborative, engaging element to their sounds, deliveries, and compositions.

“#26” is the first long composition, and its sparse layout feels more radical after the dramatic, but brief, opening cut. “#41” softly descends through a set of lead lines, which stand prominent against swelling background rhythms. Completely void of percussion, there are no rhythms other than the imprints of machines, which produces a surprisingly inviting experience: the listener can wander along, carefully feeling the edges of these evolving notes. In this environment, a shift in sustain, or a jump from descending to ascending notes, feels severe and carefully planted. However, these changes are not confrontational, which means that the listener has a chance to engage with a fragile feeling. This fragile feeling is precisely what unfolds throughout “#26,” which essentially is an everlasting series of layers and textures. Here, there does not seem to be a specific lead line or story until the end of the song, but the constant developments between each sound form an infrastructure or ecosystem. This fragility lends these synthetic tones an organic, warm sense, giving the listener a chance to interpret the electronics into the veins of nature before they turn to outer space. Perhaps this is the most radical development throughout Tape #4, as VCSR consistently present accessible, grounded visions with their compositions.

On the other hand, “#32” instantly feels more dramatic and intense than “#26,” as a crescendo greets the listener at the beginning of the performance. Once the pulsing sounds resume, they feel more like decay or echoes of the initial crescendo, lending this performance a darker interpretation of the organic, grounded visions that populate Tape #4. Shifting between longer, then shorter, underlying drones, and more prominent, robust lead tones, “#32” feels more compact and direct than the previous cut. These echoes, decays, or imprints heighten, which also produces a more extreme timbral transition, since the robust, bassy, and even dark synths give way to a trebly, high-register feeling on these bundled echoes. Even as these higher-pitched oscillations form patterns and develop the cut, the inviting sense of the performance does not change. Instead, VCSR simply suggest a different direction for their vision, and their longform, extended delivery allows them to accurately convey these visions to their listener (in this case, 14 and 21 minute songs feel necessary, and no minute is wasted).

Those echoes, or high-frequency imprints, fallout as the album closes, and VCSR mimic the narrative turn that also appears on “#26.” In this case, the last few minutes of both of the long compositions are clearly tied in with the short, introductory track, which helps the listener hold on to signposts or revisit familiar territory throughout the album. VCSR offer an exploration in the truest sense of the word, as they provide their listener with the terrain and key for finding heartfelt layers of sound, or the unfolding skeletons and memories of those sounds.