Gen Ken Montgomery - Birds + Machines 1980-1989 [Pogus Productions - 2010]I can’t help but notice that a lot of the records I’ve bought recently have been re-issues: it seems to be one area of the music industry that's truly thriving. These re-issues serve to add detail to the map we already have - whether by drawing in forgotten, “lost” or overlooked areas (the vast plethora of compilations of old 78’s for example, or the “lost gems” being resurrected by the Finder Keepers label, for another); or indeed by simply adding that detail, and showing that the standard textbook history of music - with innovations by singular pioneers - is simplistic and untrue. This album falls into the latter category.
“Birds + Machinery 1980-1989” collects up works by Gen Ken Montgomery, recorded across these years and across New York, New Jersey, Berlin and Rome. There’s three different forms compiled here: sprawling long pieces; very short, focused pieces and songs. These are all constructed predominantly out of analogue synthesizer, electronics and found sounds or field recordings; though there is also room for violin, voice and tapes. The overall sound is quite lo-fi, though not deliberately so; I presume that most of the tracks were home-recorded. Saying this, the Berlin pieces were recorded at the great Conrad Schnitzler’s studio; which gives you an idea of the avenues that Montgomery was exploring.
The non-song recordings strike a bizarre balance of being quite cluttered, but also patient and expansive at the same time; there’s often a great sense of space on display. This cluttered feel might be down to the generally distressed nature of the sounds being used; the synthesizer parts in particular often sound…sleazy? Sleazy is perhaps too strong, but the sounds lurch; they’re not clean, they shriek and gurgle. Montgomery layers up these drones, bleeps and screams into detailed, chaotic tangles; but for all the noise (and some of the tracks - “Subliminal Clutter part 3” or “Crema Di Roma”, for example - have overt noise elements and textures), there’s no sense of an attack on the listener or any suggestion that the works aim at any negative atmosphere. The pieces are quite emotionless - in a good way; Montgomery just lets the sounds play alongside each other, as pure sound. As a rule, there’s very little insistent rhythm; though “Nylon Glasses 3am” is built around galloping synth blips - and “Subliminal Clutter part 2” has brief bursts of almost industrial strength beats. If this gives you a flavour of the “machinery” element, you‘ll be pleased to note that “birds” are well represented too. Indeed, the whole of “Birds & Machines (bird suite)” explores bird sounds; with actual recordings of birds alongside what sound like synthesizer approximations of bird calls - ending with a tape of a human voice being transformed into a duck-like, quacking sound. Or at least that’s what it sounds like; in fact, its actually hard to discern much processing on these recordings at all (beyond some reverb) - whether this is down to very intelligent, rigorous transformations, or just no processing, its hard to say.
The compilation also contains three short songs; or rather, three short, incredibly noisy songs. All recorded in the very early 1980s, these simple little tracks are absurdly abrasive; the first, “Shoot Me Down”, is better described as noise with a song buried underneath. They remind me of a scratchy Throbbing Gristle, or the Residents recorded way into the red. But, again, there’s no particular sense of noise as signifying extreme discontent, anger or any negative emotion; which is not a bad thing at all.
The last track, “B + M Redux” is rather fascinating; as the title suggests, it appears to be a 2009 reworking of Montgomery’s earlier pieces. It delivers a concise summary of his aesthetics and ideas (as evinced on this album, at least), with the same interplay between electronic and acoustic elements; though whilst still noisy, it is noticeably less wild.
“Birds + Machines 1980 -1989” is a great album, from someone I had never heard of before. (Behold the power of the re-issue!) It actually reminds me, in spirit, of New Zealand’s Omit: they share the same sense of “bedroom electro-acoustic”; the same expansive, detailed sound-environment, constructed out of somewhat basic elements. A noble pursuit.Martin P