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Journey to the End of the Night

img  Tobias

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years, and a lot of mainstream media speculation, about the ‘Wellie Sound’ or a so-called ‘Dub Explosion’ taking place in the Capital. But what may have once begun at the local grass roots seems now to have been completely subsumed by a ©orporate industry that keeps its workers on the trot.

But beneath all the fuss and false puffery of PR hacks and moneymen, lazy photo-ops and the accompanying scribblings of tacky celebrity-obsessed mayors, a nascent experimental music scene has been quietly developing. The unpredictable and diverse sounds of Wellington, and the increasing number of artists passing through the city, are creating a hazy and staticky undercurrent to the harmonious happy-worker transmissions of the Official Culture. Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, Enjoy, The Engine Room, The City Gallery, Valve, Mighty Mighty, SFBH and Photospace have all played host to some ear-splittingly memorable events.

But the hub of Wellington’s experimental music scene, or the lynchpin which brings this eclectic bunch together, is the legendary Happy Bar and Venue, located in the basement beneath the dance-fever crazy Latinos, on the corner of Vivian and Tory Streets.

Formed in 2003, in the wake of Newtown’s the Space, which had been forced to disband due to noise complaints, Happy was founded by a group of musicians, including avant extraordinaires and stir-crazy sound veterans Jeffrey John Henderson and Anthony Donaldson, in an effort to preserve a home for Wellington’s miscreant talents.

But Happy and its associated artists have gone on to do more than just survive. Happy and its community’s music is thriving if not the community itself. The struggle has born fruit to some exceptional music.

Now the ante is being upped, if in an under- the-radar kind of a way, with the launch of new Henderson-run experimental record label, iiii records, and the simultaneous release of its first seven albums. Featuring stand-out live recordings and troubadour studio sessions in foreign lands, the series brings together some of Happy’s most notorious groups, The Dodecahedrons, The Elephantmen, The Metabolists, Dominion Centenary Concert Band, Locum, Little Wet Horse and The Deconstruction Unit – groups you may not have heard of but will grow to love; many of the musicians’ names may ring a bell.

The Elephantmen’s Let You Entertain Me throws up a volatile concoction of obnoxious avant strained punk, with Chris Palmer’s jagged guitar, black-sheep note-book rhymes and distorted babblings being nicely accompanied by a rambunctious rhythm section of Craig Taylor on bass and Rick Cranson on drums. This album was originally going to be titled after one of its stand-out tracks, Jesus Loves You But Not Like That, but some discomfort arose proving that even the avant-garde has its issues with taste. The Deconstruction Unit’s The Consolation of Philosophy kicks of with the bare sound of handclaps then punctuated by affectionately wayward brass instrumentation building into some kind of demented Teddy Bears’ Picnic-type scenario. Worth a wander down the lane.

Tag along with Auckland-based errant drunk-sounding Dominion Centenary marching band and the misguided fervour of its loving tributes to the Queen and Province. Or catch adrift while listening to Locum’s Metal Bird and Horror Bell featuring droning organ tempered with the sharp rhythmic sounds of plucked strings, bells and scissors with squelchy meodica and gargles of water; Daniel Beban and Paul May recorded the album in 2006 at Leander Road in London. Both The Metabolist’s Rapture of the Deep and The Dodecahedrons’ Colorful Language of…are epic journeys into peculiar improvised sound.

But as notable as the music itself, are the fabulous paintings by Gerard Crewdson that feature as cover artwork on six of the seven albums. The cryptic and spooky paintings, done on cardboard, feature unnerving images such as a magician levitating an anvil, sailors stringing up a mammoth shark and a passenger liner sinking into the ocean, clutched in the tentacles of a giant squid. The artist also performs on The Consolation of Philosophy.

Crewdson’s paintings help draw together what is a diverse group of recordings by artist’s with different agendas but a shared irreverence towards established musical forms and the commercial stranglehold on most of today’s music. The albums are also connected by the shared history of Happy and the nights of mayhem that have made the music possible. All seven albums deserve a listen and sit well together as a complete set, a visual and audio record of a certain period of time in a certain city – the output of some unpretentious artists working hard to survive in a city pretentiously branding itself as the Creative Capital, just going to prove that the Right can’t create, it only conquer. But don’t expect to hear any of this music as a Vodaphone or Telecom ring-tone any time soon! Any collection of New Zealand experimental music will be incomplete without this collection.

By Steve Snatch by kind permission of White Fungus Magazine. Thanks to Ron Hanson.

Homepage: iiii Records

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