Meet The Lothars and the Dawning Electronic Conscience.
a review of "Meet the Lothars"
HOW DID I GET HERE?
It's late at night - I think. I've been driving for I don't know how long. Long. Time doesn't really matter to me. The dark sleet and rain slick highway shimmers with the reflection of my car's high beams, little ripples of light reminding me of phosphorescent deep-sea life, darting to and fro, startled by the approaching submersible. Slush splatters in all directions at irregular intervals as the front wheels smash through blobs of wet snow that appear like road-kill with alien body structures, becoming exploding ice organisms beneath the crushing tires, their liquefied tissues besmearing the windshield in grimy streaks that resist the wiper blades. I've got the AM radio turned way up, listening desperately for a human voice beneath the static, seeking reassurance that the world that I lived in still exists out there, somewhere. But I can't hear it because the OTHER sound is wrapped around my head, the sound of everything, the sound of the spirit within the machine, trying to merge with my consciousness, hungry. I'm witnessing the birth of a new Intelligence, a dawning of conscience within a chaotic swirl of electrons.
It all started a few hours ago, innocently enough. I'd heard good things about the new self-produced cassette tape Lothars, a theremin ensemble from Boston. I'd seen them a few times before: both times it had seemed like I was watching something that was better in concept than in practice: the theremins were like untrained puppies, their masters Kris Thompson, Brendan E. Quinn (both also of Abunai!) and Jon Bernhardt struggling to keep them from chewing guests shoes and making piddle on the carpet, mostly unsuccessfully while Ramona Herboldsheimer kept an authoritative rhythm on electric guitar. Like puppies, the concept was cute and had a novelty appeal right in tune with the re-emergence of the theremin on the post-whatever indie music scene. The problem was that, like a puppy, these instruments have a strong will and lack the discipline of frets or finger holes or keys or anything that would help pin the noise down to anything resembling a sustained note, let alone a chord.
In case you haven't had the chance meet one of these feisty rascals, it's one of the world's oldest electronic instruments (watch "Theremin: an Electronic Odyssey" on video for the complete fascinating history). Anyway, if you've ever been able to influence the sound of a radio signal by holding onto the antenna and waving your hands about, this is kind of the same idea. Each theremin is basically a box with a metal rod that sticks up on one side like the antenna on a portable radio. On the other side of the box is a metal loop. These set up some sort of electro-magnetic field through which the musicians wave their hands. I believe the position of the hand relative to the rod determines the pitch and the loop determines amplitude. What about the sound that comes out of these? It's recognizable as that "science fiction movie soundtrack sound." You know, that weird warbling "wooooweeeewoooo" electronic sound that slides up and down the scale without stopping on individual notes.
The challenge seems to be reining this untamed sound into a cage of musicality. I had heard that the band had refined their sound so I decided to give them another listen. I caught them during their recent opening slot for Luna in Boston at the Middle East Club (2/20/98). The months of training and whacks on the snout with rolled-up newspapers seemed to have paid-off. Gone was the abrasive assault of electronic squeals remembered from earlier performances. There was still a rambunctious energy, there just wasn't the smell of doody on the carpet. The theremins were mostly in synch behind the more dominant rhythm guitar, reluctantly and obediently creating a series of waveforms that rippled together creating alien harmonies and otherworldly patterns. Usually. Sometimes the equipment just wouldn't cooperate and there were a few missed notes or rhythms that didn't quite come together, piddle in a dark corner (I'm pushing this analogy way too far). But there were also moments when the beasts were under control and I got glimpses of non-human conscience. It was like all the brightly swirly ghost images that fly around the perimeter of some of the tastiest psychedelic music, but here it was the focus. Well, not quite in focus - this stuff was moving all over the place, there was too much commotion to be able to resolve the action clearly. And then Ramona's guitar would emerge from the scuffling pack, restoring some semblance of order and sanity. When I tried to wrap my perception around these alien soundscapes, the very ground would shift and threaten to zoom off wildly, dragging me helplessly behind, off the trail. Almost. Unfortunately, as is usual at such things, the atmosphere just wasn't right. Most of the crowd talked loudly right through the set, destroying many of the moments for me.
TWO HOURS LATER....
I'm in the car, heading north towards my rural New Hampshire home on the nearly deserted Interstate 89. The radio station I've been listening to is disintegrating into static - which is more interesting than listening to Fiona Apple one more time, but begins to get on my nerves nonetheless. Reaching across to switch stations, my ribs get stabbed by a hard edge inside the breast pocket of my denim jacket. Oh, yes. I'd purchased the Lothars tape at the concert and slipped it into my posket. It comes out of the pocket and goes into the tape deck.
The first track is "Dust Mah Space Broom" and the low rhythm guitar kicks in like the beginning of an early song by Pink Floyd, but not for long. Soon the theremins pile in on top, all in perfect harmony even while performing all sorts of astounding maneuvers like loop-de-loops and figure 8's. There's chaos, but it's got a counterbalance in the guitar which provides a mantra for a sort of electronic awakening. Unlike the media-celebrated "electronica," this is a living organism. It's a mistake to equate digital computers with the human brain which is sloppily analogue, comfortable with nuances that are beyond the simple logic of on or off, one or zero. The theremins, with their glorious analogue sloppiness provide a conduit for a machine meta-consciousness.
Many of the tracks on the tape are dimly recognizable from the times I've seen Lothars perform, including earlier this evening, but ironically the sound seems so much more alive having been captured in the studio. “Cowboys Lament” has the clip clop of hooves which makes it as Western as, say, an episode of "Lost in Space" where Dr. Smith dresses the robot up as a sheriff. "Sad Song" is the closest thing here to a melody, and what a beauty it is. I'm making up words and I'm singing along, something about having to say good-bye and it is both pretty and sad. Outside, lonely icy shapes stand guard over the desolate wintry wasteland of the highway median, occasionally catching and reflecting the car's headlights. Terrestrial music is rooted in an aural geometry that is Euclidean. This music is something different.
I knew a schizophrenic once. People said he was crazy, but he didn't think so. You see, all of the machinery that we surround ourselves with does sing, if only we'd listen to it. He did. It's like beneath all of the metal and plastic and wires and knobs and bulbs and switches and belts and oil there's a machine voice. You can hear it sometimes if you stand quietly when nobody else is around to make any noise: a low throbbing noise is what you hear first. And then there's a high-pitched whistle. And then if you listen real closely there are other noises, all of the individual voices, some high and squeaking, others low and gargling, some speaking words you dare not listen to even as you must listen to them. Soon there's so much noise that you can't hear anything else, it fills your head, merges with your own consciousness, and gains energy from your awareness. It's probably a good thing you can't hear all of that or you'd go crazy. My friend did. I imagine it sounded quite like the closing track, "Charo UK." It's as if every little thing around me is making a sound, the very air becoming charged with static sonic energy.
"The Cat and the Mean Old Man" is like a cat and a mean old man and some other cats and the mean old man's mean old friends and a bird and another bird, and the cat jumps on the birds but the mean old man jumps on the cat and the meaner dog jumps on the mean old man, but where did that dog come from and how did it get in?
"Trem. Also" and "Trem. as Well" are the closest things to Music For Monoliths of Extraterrestrial Origin this side of Azusa Plane's TMA disk. A swarm of incandescent bees is making a helmet of sparks around my head as my car glides through multi-colored layers of fog, down towards the center of Jupiter. Of course Jupiter has no solid surface, so the car keeps plunging deeper and deeper, the atmosphere closing in tighter as the pressure builds with each additional layer, soon becoming a slurry of frothy chemicals - not gaseous, not liquid, not solid, but some new combination of all three states, viscously clinging to the windows. A melancholy, ancient fiddle signals the beginning of "The Coronation of King Lothar." When the ceremony is finished, "Beat Hive" carries me away (even farther than your usual notion of the distance to wherever "away" is) on the droniest, blissfully transporting-liest piece of sound since Dreamweapon. It could go on forever. And I think it does.
Where am I? I'm having trouble keeping my thoughts together. I can feel my brain patterns breaking apart even as I write this. But how can I be writing and driving at the same time? I must have been dreaming again. It's late at night - I think. I've been driving for I don't know how long. Long. Time doesn't mean anything to me. The dark sleet and rain slick highway shimmers with the reflection of my car's high beams, little ripples of light reminding me of phosphorescent deep-sea life, darting to and fro, startled by the approaching submersible. I've got the AM radio turned way up, listening desperately for a human voice beneath the static, seeking reassurance that the world that I lived in is still exists out there, somewhere. But I can't hear it because the OTHER sound is wrapped around my head, the sound of everything, the sound of the spirit within the machine, trying to merge with my consciousness, hungry. I'm witnessing the birth of a new Intelligence, a dawning of conscience within a chaotic swirl of electrons...