“The Elephant Table Album: A Compilation of Difficult Music” (1983)

What do we mean when we describe music as “difficult”? I know I’ve done it before here on the blog, but I suspect it means different things to different people. Is it music with unusual timing signatures? Disturbing lyrics? Experimental work with sound that doesn’t fall into any kind of recognizable pattern or framework? Genres you don’t personally care for? Something that creates an unsettled mood in the listener? Or maybe all of the above… or none… I don’t know. When I use the term difficult, I usually mean something I find musically well outside of the norm, something I can’t quite wrap my mind around. This includes non-music and noise, as well as experimental and avantgarde. It’s music that challenges my preconceptions of what actually constitutes “music”, and I find it valuable in that it expands my mind. I don’t always like it, and often I only listen to a given album once, but that doesn’t mean the listening experience wasn’t valuable.

So I was intrigued when I ran across this record yesterday over at Easy Street Records, because it says right on the cover that it’s “a compilation of difficult music”. I wondered what that meant to the label, and the first artist name my eyes fell upon was Chris and Cosey. Hmm… I don’t normally think of them as difficult. Is that because I’ve listened to them a bunch over the last few months? A little further down is Coil. OK, I sort of get that, at least some of their stuff. Nurse With Wound. Now this is making a bit more sense. I only know a few of the other 17 performers (♠), specifically SPK, Muslimgauze, and Legendary Pink Dots. That gave me enough context to know that this was an album I needed to buy.

The genesis of The Elephant Table Album was an article Dave Henderson wrote for the May 7, 1983 issue of Sounds entitled “Wild Planet!” (the text of which can be found HERE). It was a survey of the more extreme music being made at the time, a listing of dozens of bands with blurbs on each. Four months after that article appeared this double album came out. I’m not sure how it was received at the time, nor do I know how I would have reacted to it back in 1983 (probably badly), but rough 36 years later in my living room it’s tremendous. 400 Blows’ “Beat the Devil” is a high point, along with the Chris and Cosey jam.

Styles mix on this album, though there’s still a general cohesion. The Elephant Table Album opens with an industrial dance track, Portion Control’s “Chew You to Bits”, then takes a sharp left turn to Chris and Cosey, though their “Raining Tears of Love” is less poppy than their later sound, a methodical electro dystopian dream sequence. From there we take another sudden swerve and find ourselves listening to horns and synths and piano and disconnectedly haunting vocals in the very avantgarde “Musak from Hawthorne Court” by Metamorphosis. And it just keeps going on like that, song after song, surprise after surprise.

I can’t say enough good things about The Elephant Table Album. It was re-released on vinyl in 1989 with a different set of liner notes, and that same year a CD version came out, though the CD only has 17 tracks. It also sounds like the CD version was actually recorded directly from a vinyl copy and not from the masters, so buyer beware.

(♠) The track listing on the reverse of the record goes up to 21. However, Muslimgauze is listed twice, both times numbered 9. So what’s the deal? Looking at the grooves on that side it looks like the record only has five tracks, which would mean that despite Muslimgauze being listed twice there is in fact only one track devoted to him on the record.

“Tales From the Pit, Vol. 3” Compilation (2013)

My buddy Travis liberated this record while vinyl digging at an antique mall. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but my recollections are groups of crappy records with asking prices about 5-10 times their actual value, with most of the records being very common or very obscure. Travis has better luck in those places than I do, and when he came across this copy of Tales From the Pit, Vol. 3 he recognized immediately that, well, it didn’t belong there. This is simply not the kind of record that does or should end up in an antique mall. Plus there’s a local connection because the record was compiled by Whidbey Island Pyrate Punx and Whidbey Island is just a 20 or so minute ferry ride from Seattle. And he knew just who would want such a record… Thanks Travis!

I actually hung around on Whidbey Island a bit back in high school. My friend’s grandfather had a small, rustic cabin on the water and sometimes we’d all pile into my Mustang and head out there on the ferry for an overnight. When the tide was out a long sand spit would become exposed that was a very short rowboat ride from the beach. Needless to say, there were some bonfires had on that spit. And some beers may have been drunk as well. I can neither confirm nor deny that last part (confirmed). So I’ve always had fond memories of Whidbey.

As for Tales From the Pit, it’s crammed with 21 different bands. Most of ’em are from the greater Seattle area, including four from Whidbey itself. There are also a handful from Boise and one each from Portland, New Hampshire (?), and Bejing (???!!!). Stylistically it’s a lot of punk, but there’s some thrash here (Coven’s “Mow ‘Em Down” is pretty rad) and even some high-octane rockabilly. The recording quality varies a bit, but overall it sounds decent. High points include the previously mentioned Coven as well as The Jerkwadz’s “Already Owned”, which is catchy as hell.

I don’t know much about the record itself, other than that my copy is on marbled orange vinyl, as is the one shown on Discogs. No clue about the print run size or any of that. So if you find it, and the price is right, grab it. It’s worth the listen.

Hula – “1000 Hours” (1986)

I’ve been on a bit of a Hula kick lately, which is odd considering that up until a few months ago I’d never heard of this industrial dance outfit from Sheffield. I came across four of their records over at Seattle’s Jive Time Records. They looked interesting, and a quick web search showed they’d be right up my alley. Then a few weeks ago I found two more of their records at Easy Street, so snagged those as well. So I went from having never heard of Hula to having six of their records in a pretty short amount of time.

I’ve already listened to five of them, two albums and three 12″ singles, but somehow never got motivated enough to post about them on the blog. I’m not sure why, other than that the over the last few months I haven’t been as interested in writing about what I’m listening to. That’s not to say I’m not listening to a ton of stuff, because I am. It’s also not to say my compulsion to write has diminished, because it hasn’t. I don’t have much in the way of an explanation other than sometimes it feels like I’m just writing the same words and using the same adjectives over and over again. For 2020 I’m thinking I might start posting less, but doing longer pieces. Or maybe it’ll be business as usual. Or maybe I’ll start collecting vintage matchbooks and start writing about those. I don’t know. I tend to get very intensely into a subject for about five years at a time. Sometimes I get a second five year run on the same thing, other times not. I’ve been doing Life in the Vinyl Lane for seven years (♠) now, so maybe this is just a speed bump (the “Seven Year Itch”?) and I have another solid three years of passion left in the tank. We’ll see.

But for now, back to Hula. There’s a good interview with them from 1985 reprinted online HERE, which you might enjoy for some background. 1000 Hours is a double album. The first record is live performance recorded in Amsterdam in early 1985 and it has more of an experimental feel than much of their studio work. The sensation is industrial, with metallic clanging and looping and trippy repetition. You get the sense that there’s a lot more happening up on that stage than can be conveyed by just the audio, and certainly Hula were known for using different kinds of media in their live performances. There’s definitely some intensity here, though the B side gets a bit funky as well. The recording quality is surprisingly good for this genre and period – you could just as easily assume this was studio work if it wasn’t for the occasional applause. The second record is a combo of various studio sessions, and while no less experimental than the live stuff it is more polished and produced, which is to be expected. The C side incorporates elements of funk and tribal beats to great effect, while the D side slows things down, especially on “Bribery and Winning Ways”. 1000 Hours is like hearing three completely different bands, and all of them are excellent.

(♠) I just about choked on my soda when I wrote that. Life in the Vinyl Lane began because I was talking to my buddy Tristen (technically Skyping) and we both were interested in starting blogs. So we both did pretty much right then and there. While his running blog is gone (which is too bad because he’s funny as hell), this is post #1,776 on Life in the Vinyl Lane. And if you’re an American 1776 is a special number, because it’s the year our founding fathers wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence. So maybe I still have more writing in my future after all…

Tuð – “Þegiðu!” (2015)

This is the last of the records we brought back from Iceland Airwaves this year. It kind of got buried behind some other stuff in the “To Listen To” pile and I lost track of it until now.

I don’t know much (let’s be honest, anything) about Tuð. They were doing a crowdfunding campaign for Þegiðu!, and it looks like they succeed. My buddy Gestur over at Lucky Records put this aside for me as something that I might like, and as is true with about 95% of his recommendations, he was on point. Þegiðu! is some in-your-face punk rock.

The lyrics are in Icelandic, but I know from a Reddit post that at least one of the tracks is a protest song about government taxation. Musically there’s an old-school vibe, overlaid with vocals that are bit more aggro – not quite hardcore, but more growled than spat. I’m particularly fond of the A side closer “Atvinnufrjáls”. Tuð translates to “nagging” or “rambling”, while the album’s title means, quite simply, “shut up”. So it definitely has that punk attitude.

You can listen to the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as buy a digital copy. Unfortunately there’s no info there about the vinyl, so I can’t give you any tips as to how to get a copy. Maybe email the band directly. My guess is the pressing was very, very small, so I wish you luck!

De Fabriek – “Schafttijdsamba” (1982)

When going through the used “New Arrivals” section at a shop, sometimes a pattern emerges, groups of records that seem to have come from the same collection. It’s a bit less noticeable with more mainstream rock and pop, though you’ll still find groups of Zappa or the Stones or Yes together and think, yup, these records have been in close proximity to each other on a person’s shelves, and now in this box, for a long time, and they will soon to be spread among the seven collecting winds. I’m more intrigued when there are interesting genre groupings, veins of punk or early new wave or soundtracks. I find myself wondering who this person was and why the records ended up at the store. Did they leave them at their parents house when they went off to college and the parents eventually got rid of them? Were they moving and needed to downsize? Did the owner die? Or did they just lose the passion for them over time. I’m as interested in these stories as I am in the records, but most of the time all I’m left with are the albums and my imagination. If you’re lucky, every now and again you may find a hidden surprise in one of these used records that gives you just a sliver of insight into the owner. I once found some stamped postcards from Yugoslavia inside the jacket of a rock band from Sarajevo, and I imagine someone picked the album up while on vacation. Maybe they were there for the Olympics? I’ll never know, but it was kind of cool.

Anyway… it looks like someone with some very intriguing and specific tastes sold a collection to Easy Street Records, because they have three big crates out listed with various phrases like “industrial” and “avant garde” and “Krautrock”, and they all seem to fit the same general aesthetic. I’ve been through them a few times now, and each visit yields something interesting I passed over last time. This visit it was the 1982 debut album by the Dutch band De Fabriek, Schafttijdsamba. I’m not sure what it is that attracts me to these experimental albums, but I can’t seem to help myself when I come across stuff like this. Schafttijdsamba is definitely experimental – electronics, samples, strange random vocals. The individual tracks manage a certain level of cohesiveness, but with strange structures. They’re like the drawings people make on LSD – you get a sense of an underlying form in what they are trying to show, but everything is off in different directions that both make sense and don’t make sense at the same time.

As near as I can tell Schafttijdsamba has never been released on any format other than vinyl, the original pressing in 1982 and a gatefold re-release in 2018. The good news is that you can listen to the songs on Bandcamp HERE if you want to expand your horizons a bit, and I encourage you to go check it out, especially “Spacepatrol” and “Es Lebe Die Freiheit”.