Sea Of Tranquility
Tape Op Magazine #38
Expose’ Magazine #29 (April 2004)
Sea Of Tranquility, June 27, 2004, by Jedd Beaudoin.
Every art form in every age has had its geniuses and innovators and in the age of Brave New Guitar the likes of Reeves Gabrels, David Torn and Adrian Belew have moved the instrument forward by leaps and bounds. And, within the last few years, Andre LaFosse has emerged to join them. Like the other players mentioned, LaFosse’s playing transcends the instrument as the so-called turntablist guitarist forges new alliances with possibilities previously untapped or unknown during tracks such as “Sensitive Skin,” “The Proposition” (which features a bodacious Stevie Wonderlike groove amid the bleeps and bops that give Normalized its distinct personality) and “Dark Amber.” (You also can’t resist “Interference” and “Beast With Two Backs”) Normalized may not be your standard prog fare as it mixes funk, hip-hop and elements of electronic music, but it is more than progressive in spirit as LaFosse breaks down barrier after barrier, leaving few sonic stones unturned on this all-live, all guitar outing. It’s not a matter of getting used to the music here, though, instead it’s more a matter of finding a way to articulate the sensations you’re left with after tracking through Normalized. At the moment LaFosse has only released two CDs, this and Disruption Theory, which covers a slightly different terrain, and in some ways the lack of LaFosse material out there in the world is sad because an artist such as Andre LaFosse deserves to be heard and heard loud. Why? He may now be normalized; he’s far from ordinary.
(NOTE: I’m not sure what he’s referring to as “the same five guitar loops” comment, as every live track uses a completely new performance played live into the Echoplex, but that’s a minor quibble.)
Boy, I like this album. I can see where it might also give me a migraine, but it’s worth the risk. LaFosse has turned the novelty of crafting an entire album from electronic guitar samples into a verifiable work of audio art. This is the kind of music that begs to be remixed endlessly and overlaid with the likes of Guru and The Dilated Peoples, but in truth, Normalized stands uniquely on its own. LaFosse’s best idea may have been the way he structures his songs, remaining experimental even within the framework of a conventional dance track. Every aspect of the disc was created by manipulating the sound of an electric guitar with an Echoplex looper, including the cuts that form the rhythms and the high-end squiggles that rise above. Perhaps most remarkable of all is LaFosse’s preference for recording his compositions live — all but four of the eighteen tracks on Normalized were recorded “live” from the same five guitar loops. The cynic in me believes this is the kind of thing that anyone with a good ear, a decent audio editing program and a lot of patience could have pulled off, but the pragmatist in me says, “This is the guy who did it first.” (Well, maybe not first — I’m sure there’s a four-tracker in a bedroom in Peoria who will correct me on that — but certainly well.) At eighteen tracks, the concept might seem dangerously close to running its course, but in a glowing testimonial to LaFosse’s ability to keep things fresh even with an insanely limited pallet, the novelty in this novelty album never wears off. (Memo: see what LaFosse is capable of with, say, two instruments. Or a fork and a spoon…)
If you think you’ve heard everything a guitar can do, Andre LaFosse would like you to hear something.
LaFosse’s second solo record, Normalized is essential listening for any guitar player, if not simply to see the incredible untapped sonic capabilities of an instrument that was previously thought by some to have been played every way possible. True, LaFosse does have the help of the Echoplex Digital Pro and LoopIV software, but this can fairly readily be compared to the modern guitarist’s use of effects pedals and various other sound manipulating gadgets.
The difference with LaFosse is the concept that he calls “Turntablist Guitar,” which is best described in his own words. “I can drop tiny fragments of guitar into the loop, I can play the loop backwards, slow the loop down, chop the loops up… and I can do this all live, as I’m playing. It’s like my guitar is the record, and the Echoplex is the turntable and mixer. Just like a turntablist uses their technique to get sounds that are far beyond what’s on the original record, I can come up with noises and rhythms that would be impossible to play on just an unlooped guitar.”
Truly a pioneer of the Echoplex as an instrument, his confidence in his mastery is proven by the fact that 14 of the 18 tracks on the album are live Echoplex solos. While most artists relish the fact that “studio” albums or commercial releases can be polished and mixed until they are just right, LaFosse decided to show his guitar and Echoplex capabilities in their rawest form.
The result is somewhere between Aphex Twin, Art of Noise, Squarepusher, and some kid making beats on his computer late night in Mom’s basement, except it’s all guitar — manipulated guitar, yes, but guitar nonetheless. That’s the part you have to keep reminding yourself of while listening to Normalized, that and the fact that your CD isn’t skipping, even though sometimes you would bet the farm that it is. Although the album is surely not for everyone, it definitely is for anyone who enjoys experimental music, or who enjoys hearing a musician brave enough to laugh in the face of convention and create a truly original musical voice. We’re talking over an hour of a full-on collision of rock, drum & bass, hip hop, pop, jazz and who knows what else, all told through the electric guitar via Echoplex.
In an odd twist, the title track of this experimental and electronic sounding album is a single solo unlooped twangy guitar piece, hauntingly different from the rest of album. It is a fitting homage to the most basic element of LaFosse’s music: his guitar.
Andre calls his guitar technique “turntablist guitar” – using loops, multitracking and bare hands to coax a variety of rhythms and sounds out of the guitar. The results are rhythmic, grooving pieces with fuzzy guitar melodies on top. A digital Echoplex provides the backbone loops of much of this CD, and multitracking and/or editing and cleanup were performed in a computer. A cool experiment that luckily turns out to be musical and interesting.
The technology of “looping” (the act of recording sound into an electronic device, which then repeats it ad infinitum) in the pop music domain pretty much starts with guitar virtuoso/electronic poineer Les Paul. Les Paul’s numerous technological advances, looping has become an integral composition methodology in nearly all of todays popular music culture. Nearly every beat you hear is looped from some sound source or another… and nearly every groove record from the 1980’s was looped from classic James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” funk out. But the technology of looping goes back to the invention of electricity, and more importantly electronic music.
In the mid 1960s Northern California composer Terry Riley used to multiple Revox tape recorders to create extended improvisations, which looped in and around themselves. More specifically, Riley’s looping process was to improvise keyboard, saxophone or voice tracks into a microphone which fed the sounds into a 2 track reel-to-reel tape machine, which looped itself around and around. The sound from the first tape machine was then fed to a second reel-to-reel machine which recorded the sound from the first tape machine then looped it. Riley’s set up endlessly passed the sound from the original source (Terry) to Loop 1 to Loop 2 which would then be fed to loudspeakers which Terry would improvise to. Essentially feeding it all back into itself, very much like serpent eating its own tail until it eats the mouth that’s eating it.
Jump to the early 1970’s, English pop superstar Brian Eno and the king of King Crimson, Robert Fripp experiment wildly with tape loops during the recording of their collaborative albums “Discreet Music” and “Evening Star” and “No Pussyfooting.” Fripp eventually developed his own looping system (Frippertronics) which he employed exquisitely (in one form or another) with King Crimson and in his own solo performances to this day.
With the rise of turntablism, looping took another form. Instead of recording sounds to magnetic tape, the skilled turntablist would create a new compositon by beat matching short breakbeat sections from vintage funk vinyl. The process is usually something like this: Play turntable number one – turntable two is already set to start at the beginning of the breakbeat… at the end of the breakbeat on deck one… start deck two then silently roll deck one back to the start point of the breakbeat… switch back to deck one when deck two is done with the break beat… lather rinse repeat.
Looping has slowly entered the jamsphere in numerous forms, most notably Trey Anastasio’s “funk siren” from the late 90s shows. Additionally, one man band Keller Williams has made entire career out of epic loop performances. Art punk geniuses Radiohead also employ real time sampling/looping during their performances… often concluding their performances with loops of “Everything In Its Right Place” still playing to cheering crowds long after they’ve left the building.
Los Angeles based solo loop artist Andre LaFosse takes all of this technobabble and pushes it even further into the future on his latest recording “Normalized”. It’s 73 minutes are filled to the bursting point with turntablist guitar excursions that fall more in the realm of drum ‘n bass than the layered folk groovyness of Keller. One comparative analogy may be… Keller is to the Big Wu as Andre is to The Disco Biscuits. In fact Andre’s playing is a bit more avant-garde then anything the Biscuits may offer, but they both do traverse similar areas of technodelica.
Superbly recorded live-in-the-studio with no overdubs (except for a handful of tracks) and no guitar synthesizers, the 18 tracks on “Normalized” show Andre’s dazzling mastery of his instrument and more importantly his ability to execute densely packed improvisations that rock your booty as well as blow your mind. Each and every pick scrape, string scratch, harmonic squalk and muted flurry morphs into a giant recombinant electronic percussion orchestra. Pushing available technology its limits, Andre’s real-time reverse loop tracking creates a shape-shifting tapestry of imaginary hi-hats, cymbal swooshes, Squarepusher-inspired snare drum feedbacks anchored by low down techno bass dropouts, and some of the weirdest funk sirens this side of Vermont.
“Hammerhead”‘s basic loop is approximately 2 seconds long… 14 seconds and 6 repeats into the track, an additional 6 layers have been added to the original loop, while the original has been flipped around backwards. 0 to 420 in 14 seconds and already transmorphed from dancefloor throwdown to intergalactic space dust dub n bass. The end result is somewhat similar to turntablist beat matching… jumping from one short break to another (this time backwards or slowed down or all scratched up) all done in real time. As if to prove to us that this ain’t no joke or studio trickery, Andre’ includes two versions of the track “Solitaire,” recorded at different tempos, in different keys. Still, the outcome of each is singularly dazzling but when listened to in succession they individually reveal the “from here to there” mastery that Andre LaFosse posseses.
All of this leaves me to the next group of questions… Where has this guy been hiding? How come he’s not in the late night tent at the summer jam festivals? And with music as creative as this, one can only wonder what Andre’s ‘in concert light show’ is like. Wicki wicki wicki wicki.
I know little about Mr. LaFosse other than that I reviewed one of his CDs before, and happen to notice two names – Miroslav Tadic, and David Torn – in the credits. These names are not irrelevant as reference points, and provide an accurate context in which to assess LaFosse’s work. Performed soloely on electric guitar, the 18 instrumental tracks embrace a formula whereby LaFosse sets up rhythmic patterns around which are woven soloistic melodies and foreign textural inventions. He tends to favor an almost funky groove feel, with plenty of distortion and Hendrix-like energy. Particularly striking is how LaFosse creates a sonic bed that suggests a bass or drummer, despite their absence. The idea is an interesting one, and hasn’t been approached by many other people. It certainly catches the attention when you realize that everything is being accomplished by guitar, recorded live-on-the-spot. Early on my surprise was piqued, wondering how he accomplished this without lots of sound effects. But after a while the domination by this single instrument tends to isolate a listner who isn’t a fervent electric guitar fan. Thus about half-way through I began to yearn for some vairety in the textural palette, or some way to utilize the techniques in a way that transcends a simple performance, to serve a higher concept. Someone like Eno could create a context into which the obvious talents of LaFosse could flourish more fruitfully, I think. Failing that, Normalized will appreal mainly to devoted guitar enthusiasts.
Hey, wait a minute. This doesn’t sound like Tom Morello!
Andre LaFosse refers to his musical style as “Turntable Guitar,” so when I heard that, I automatically thought of the ex-Rage Against the Machine and current Audioslave guitarist who it seems can make any kind of sound with a six-string.
But while Morello blends rock and hip-hop, LaFosse — as evidenced on his second disc, Normalized — wields his ax like a DJ manning the wheels of steel at your neighborhood techno club, which, I have to say, isn’t always a good thing here.
LaFosse’s style is to take a guitar, his own ability and a digital looper to create these sounds. And while technically amazing — getting behind the fact that someone is doing so much of this with a guitar is something else — I feel that there are some holes in the disc music-wise, a lot of which can be traced to the love affair he has with electronic looping.
Remember waaay back in the day when the needle on your old Fisher Price record player would get stuck on your Sesame Street album, and “C Is for Cookie” would keep repeating? That wasn’t a fun experience. Or now, when a CD gets stuck. That sucks, right? I can handle it in small doses, but too much of it gets pretty irritating.
Some tracks do have more of an organic feel, though, which I consider the stronger songs. “Deject” has bluesy riffs layered over the glitch-work. The title track, “Normalized,” sounds pretty… normal, with stellar guitar work shining through.
I do give credit to LaFosse for being a true artist; his ability to arrange using unconventional means can be likened to that of musical revolutionaries like Frank Zappa or Miles Davis.
And I’ll admit: I would check LaFosse out live to see how he makes this all come together. Hopefully, I’d be able to make it through the show.
And I’ll admit: I would check LaFosse out live to see how he makes this all come together. Hopefully, I’d be able to make it through the show.
(See? Wasn’t that irritating?)