Loading Posts...

The Music Of Rodger Stella

The Music Of Rodger Stella

Rodger Stella is an American noise artist who is most well known for his work with the Pennsylvania noise groups Macronympha and O.V.M.N. (both groups existing as collaborations with Pittsburgh noise impresario Joseph Roemer), as well as the more recent Birmingham, Alabama duo Hollow Bush. He also has a concise and excellent body of solo work that both underlines his immense contribution to all of those groups as well as explores many unknown and strange new directions in sound. Named for a colonial moniker for a part of the clitoris of female members of the Hottentot tribe, Macronympha is known for making antisocial Industrial noise with wide-ranging themes that greatly pushed the thresholds of tolerability in terms of imagery and sound content in the 1990’s American and international noise scene. Sonically the group is similar in construction to Texas’ Black Leather Jesus, making noise from radios, metal junk, tape manipulations, and pure electronic sound. Inspired by the Japanese free noise wave of extreme acts like C.C.C.C. (the legendary cosmic wall noise group with whom Macro did a short tour of the United States in the mid-90s), the group sought to make loud and ugly noise that was as loud as it was aesthetically provocative. Stella’s contribution to this group was immense, and he is the source of much of their trademark cut-up and multitracked sound (with sounds of all different types coming from the speakers in a ferocity akin to the most violent free jazz music). Stella actually attended film school somewhere around this time, where he learned many tape editing techniques that define the Macronympha sound. There are countless releases by the group, but the finest of them have the unmistakable stamp of Stella’s hand, with layers of rhythmic sound flowing in and out of the crushing walls of noise. Stella himself has for the past several years been releasing many of these original Macronympha releases as cassettes on his own Mother Savage imprint (aka Mutter Wild) alongside the related side-projects of that ensemble.

The voluminous output of Macronympha has many highlights of maximum weirdness. “Insemination Bath/Radio For The People” is a live recording that was released on UK Power Electronics weirdos’ Smell And Quim’s label Stinky Horse Fuck. It features a grizzled performance of “blood fist” noise guitar in an unhinged session of live electronics and noise that show an early freeform version of the group in full effect. In one of the group’s most infamous moments, group released it’s defining LP “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” on The Praxis Dr. Bearmann label in 1995, a desolate and destroyed harsh atmosphere of Industrial noise that presents poverty, racism, and hate as a swirling vortex of pain. It is one of the most agonizingly violent noise albums ever created, easily rivalling the chaos of the pure noise work of The New Blockaders. This LP is filled with the junk metal cut-ups and loops of Stella that became a trademark element of Macronympha’s sound across the world through this devastating LP. “Baroque” is an anomalous album that is unique in that it features a collaboration with live drums, which more than keeps up the pace with the Macronympha chaos contained within. “Greatest Hits Live 1993” is a showcase of Rodger Stella’s personal recordings with metal noise loops and drones.

A recent re-issue of a collection of insane Macronympha outtake material on the Premier Sang label of France presents an almost entirely Stella-performed and produced affair. “Cut-Ups, Drones, and Other Weird” is a unique window into the purely Stella-driven aspect of Macronympha. This release does not focus on the pain noise that Macro is commonly known for, and instead offers a vital and beguiling landscape of otherworldly sonic intoxicants. The other side of Macronympha, the completely anti-social and hateful destruction unit bent solely on depicting violence, rape, and racial hatred, is exemplified by the metal-junk noise destruction of the “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” LP, but this one is the finest example of the pure schizophrenic weirdness that the group was capable of. The first side of this double LP set is oriented toward loops of what sounds like manipulated radio signals and synthesizers, sandwiching around a short contact mic room recording that sounds with ominous thumping and a female voice talking and giggling. The idea of the body movements being recorded and surrounded with the schizophrenic and bizarre electronics on the A-side is evocative of blood coursing through veins and the firing of neurons. A lot of Rodger’s music seems to be inspired by scientific themes and the idea of energy flowing within a body, as well as how that relates to the sonic aspect of the release. This material is extremely ahead of its time in terms of a DIY edited narrative through sound.

Another group that Rodger has been involved with that has gained a lot of attention is O.V.M.N. An acronym that stands for Optimum Volume Maximum Noise, the group is an offshoot of the usual work of Macronympha and Mother Savage Noise Productions and continues in the sonic insanity direction of their other projects via collaboration with Akihiro Shimuzu of the project Thirdorgan. The first release from O.V.M.N. is over the top and punishing in every manner high end noise insanity not unlike the most wrenching and destructive work of the Incapacitants, buffered by strong moments of crunching low end. This release was recently reissued on the Freak Animal label’s “Industrial Recollections” imprint and is an excellent hour of harsh noise insanity. The focus of this project continued after the initial collaboration into a more streamlined harsh noise focus on single crunching constant sonic textures, resulting in a sound that is often recognized as being prototypical of the wall noise or Harsh Noise Wall genre. This is best exemplified by the recent Mother Savage Noise Productions cassette reissues of “II” and “III,” two sessions consisting of Stella and Macronympha main collaborator Joseph Roemer, without the input of Shimuzu. One Dark Eye in turn is a more solo affair that contains many experimental sections, some of which are extremely calming drone works and others that belie the heavy low end intention that pops up in the later O.V.M.N. material. The overall vibe of the project is that of a loud machine hum. One of the tracks on the One Dark Eye release pops up in an expanded form on the “RS” cassette, showing how Stella works with particular pieces of extremely long periods of time in order to get them to be exactly what he is searching for sonically.

After some time living on the west coast, Rodger moved down to Birmingham, Alabama (the birthplace of Sun Ra) and eventually started releasing material again, this time under his own name. Also around this time began an ongoing collaboration with fellow noise artist Bryan Martin called Hollow Bush. Some of the first releases from the project, such as “Negative Line” (Hanson Records) or “Wrong Hole” (Trash Ritual) feature devoted analysis of loud crunching textures delivered brutally, but with the editorial delicacy of a surgeon. Continuing in the monolithic wall of noise vein that O.V.M.N. has become known for, Hollow Bush’s first two cassettes come together as one solid hour of unrelenting and absolute top-quality sonic walls, crunching textured noise. This is visible on the DVD release “Live At The AC Temple” (AA Records) where Hollow Bush performs live with jazz legend Arthur Doyle. The set begins with Doyle uttering strange language and sounds that the group manipulates into a rumbling electronic noise void, followed by stabs of saxophone from Mr. Doyle. An unhinged performance that shows a very rare collaboration between a harsh noise group and a well-respected free jazz performer. Also on this disc is an intense collaboration between Stella, Steve Kenney, and Nate Young called Drug Knives. Drug Knives hopefully has more violent harsh thundering atmospheres to provide us in the future, but for now this short set has been captured for posterity and is quite impressive. Released on the Chocolate Monk label out of the UK, the Hollow Bush CDr “Null-A Pt. 1” is an obscure release that sounds like the source material could be styrofoam popcorn. The release is inspired by the work of sci-fi author A. E. Van Vogt and is a really out-there excursion for fans of the weirdest sounds imaginable. Also released during that same year was the lo-fi Whitehouse tribute cd titled after a cover of “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” featuring an unlikely foray into strangely jazzy power electronics. Around this same time Stella would return to perform with his old group Macronympha again in 2006 at a live performance at No Fun Fest in New York City. Stella pieces that bookended the performance, namely his “Death Loop Cut” which comprised the base-level aggressive sound of the set, and material that appears on “Foucault Zombie” which features some of the oddly comical sounds that are heard at the end of the performance. Hollow Bush had a productive year in 2008, including collaborations/split releases with Sick Llama and Pigs In The Ground. Notably, the cassette tape release “The Harmonic Module Revealed” (Chrondritic Sound) features a blistering performance by Stella on an affected theremin and a dense, psychedelic sound that takes Hollow Bush into otherworldly territory even further out than previously. Probably one of the most beautiful releases in the Hollow Bush catalog, “Harmonic Module” is soon going to be re-released on LP.

Concurrent with the resurgence in ensemble activity, Rodger Stella began to release solo material under his own name around this same time. Mike Connelly of Wolf Eyes and Failing Lights did the world the service of releasing Stella’s magnificent 2007 LP “Foucault Zombie” on his Gods of Tundra record label. The LP is a landscape of sound waves and violent blasts of electronics and tape manipulation. It is probably much weirder than fans of Macronympha and Hollow Bush were expecting, as it is an unclassifiable record outside of the tag of noise or “weird,” and certainly does not conform to any sort of previously held concepts of what constitutes a noise release. Warped high-end sounds swirl around the listener like the fingers of a tiny swirling poltergeist… at around the 2 minute mark a slow and distant rumble of wall electronics disturbs the reverie ever so slightly, sounding like an avalanche coming down a hill as the warped sounds continue to swirl around the listener. The b-side of the LP delves completely into strange comical sounds that will be familiar to owners of the “Hand Of The Minotaur” live 3″ cd or the end of the aforementioned Macronympha No Fun Fest 2006 appearance. The weird and overwhelming collection of noises builds together to make an unnerving hall of mirrors in which the reflection can come back deeply distorted. In 2008, an old synthesizer recording made in 2001 was combined with some recent recordings to create the bizarre minimalist landscape called “The Electric Zodiac II.” It was released on the AA Records imprint and features haunted cover illustration by label owners Nate Young and Alivia Zivich, a stylized depiction of a goat-headed woman with multiple sets of breasts, surrounded by a circle of animals and being crowned with antlers by a monkey. It is loosely based on a fountain statue in Birmingham called “The Storyteller,” where several animals form a pentagram around a goat that is telling them all a story. The music on the release is minimal low-end synth pieces of a frozen atmosphere, and favoring an eerily sci-fi sort of futuristic edge. It contains a minimal direction in Stella’s work going towards a completely unmoving sound that allows deeper forces to emerge through the musical equipment… icy minimalism that is reflected in some of his collaborations from this era with others such as Leslie Keffer and Kites. This recent solo output seems to be a distillation of the basic moods behind Stella’s work over the years, eliminating the chaotic elements piece by piece and focusing on a controlled meditation on particular sounds.

Continuing in the vein of the “Foucault Zombie” LP, the self-titled “RS” cassette on Nazot is a limited edition release that does not have Stella’s name written anywhere on the artwork, but simply a stylized logo of an R and an S joined together. The cassette edition is somewhat limited but there is a more widely available cdr version on the Chocolate Monk label. Continuing from some older material that dates back to the One Dark Eye era, this release contains heretofore unfathomable sonic excursions into some of the strangest music that you are likely to hear from the “harsh noise” world. Somewhat akin to the feeling behind the eerie first Cluster LP, this release takes two journeys through cassette mangling and time warping to create a psychedelic set of textures that seem to bend physics. A lot of the sounds on more recent material by Rodger are in this direction of being less oriented towards pure harshness and more in a strange and interdimensional sound based around warbing synths, squarewave like blurts, and severe tape manipulation. The hand of a master craftsman is evident in the editing work and the very intricate sound design that results in recordings that sound truly like no other in the world of noise. The cold and removed nature of “Electric Zodiac” is combined on this release with the insanity and otherworldliness of the Gods Of Tundra LP in a way that takes the identifiable Rodger Stella sound and pushes it further with a new focus. Gone are the crunching textures and the wall-like noise sounds, and there is certainly no trace of Stella’s past work in the cut-up metal junk noise style. These recent compositions distill the basic essence of all of the previous works into half-an-hour-long excursions into warped electronic strangeness. The moods evoked through this music are marked by a feeling of mystery. Minimal electronics create space for the mind to gather itself and attempt to understand exactly what is being listened to. Moments of intense power and even drama pass unexplainably past the listener like foreign words before a child, not meant to be understood but to be experienced and felt. The unfamiliar nature of the atmospheres on this release causes the listener to have to engage the sound on a deeply intuitive level of sonic symbolism, like the reduction of the artists name to a sigil-like icon. The ritualistic nature of sound creation comes full circle as the artist is removed from the release even as he becomes totally immersed within it, drawing paralell to Harsh Noise Wall philosophy. Stripped down and minimal electronics that are the most individualistic and mind-warping in Stella’s career. An extraordinary development.

After a long and storied history in noise, Rodger Stella is both creating some of his greatest work ever, as well as seeing nicely put together re-releases of his most important work over the years. It will be reaching a wider audience than ever. New re-releases from Mikko Aspa’s Industrial Recollections label ensure that the older work will be saved for posterity, and recent releases such as the vinyl version of his collaboration with Kites and the double cassette of remix work issued on Second Layer show an artist with an eye towards tomorrow. Likely, future work will continue in the vein of the precise and extremely composed solo material represented by the Nazot cassette, and even further vistas of unexplored sound will be travelled. Time has shown Rodger Stella to be one of the important artists to emerge from the American underground in the 1990s, and he continues to create futuristic new vistas of sound well into the new millineum.